Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Clickety-Clack: UNSTOPPABLE

Early in Unstoppable, two slacker train-yard workers (T.J. Miller and Ethan Suplee) fumblingly start a chain of events that leads to a large freight train carrying toxic chemicals going full speed and unmanned down the tracks. In the grand tradition of Speed and, well, Runaway Train, Unstoppable is an action film about a seemingly unstoppable force. The train blasts down the track, its constant chugging animating the soundtrack as a constant source of tension. It literally howls an animalistic roar as it blasts forward. The danger is omnipresent. This train is clearly on a collision course and when it crashes, it will be messy.

It’s directed by Tony Scott and so is, perhaps inevitably, filled with the kinds of stylistic ticks that he has accrued over the last several years. The camera jitters around while the editing cuts away mid-pan. There are tense little zooms that come out of nowhere. Color filters are intermittently applied. Shots slip out of focus, or start blurry just to be pulled sharply into extreme clarity. Quick frames of double-exposure or pops of white light show up intermittently. You’d think I’d consistently dislike all this busyness, but sometimes Scott puts it to good use. (I particularly enjoyed its deployment in such confidently preposterous actioners as 2005’s Domino and 2006’s Déjà vu). In Unstoppable, the train careening nonstop throughout provides enough of a steady stream of tension that his style here ends up distracting much less than it should.

Speaking of distracting less than it should, the ham-fisted screenplay by Mark Bomback is never afraid to spell out messages in capital letters. Corporations don’t care about people! Rosario Dawson spends the movie in a train control center, sweating out the crisis with safety expert Kevin Corrigan who (irony!) just happens to be visiting this day. She gets on the phone with higher ups (like Kevin Dunn) that are only worried about the bottom line. Repeat. Veteran train engineer Denzel Washington and rookie Chris Pine might have a good idea about how to stop the train. Higher ups don’t listen. Repeat! It’s a good thing the cast has such great charisma and unexpected chemistry. They make their often corny dialogue sound, well, not exactly natural, but somehow simply right.

When the plot ventures outside of the propulsive thrills of that crazy train, the movie is generally out of its comfort zone. Where the movie succeeds the most, though, is in its matter-of-fact moments, portrayals of people at work. It’s something approaching fascinating when the movie takes, even for just a few seconds, a look at the process of how trains work, to simply pay attention to how Dawson, Washington, and Pine are just doing their jobs on a day that happens to feature some particularly harrowing life-and-death decisions.

Where it’s most disappointing is in the cursory family subplots given to Washington and Pine. They’re our main protagonists, but Scott could have easily cut Washington’s two college-aged daughters waitressing at Hooters, especially the uncomfortable scene that cuts from his paternal concern to a close-up of their tight orange shorts. Also easily removed is a vaguely defined subplot about Pine’s estranged family life. Sure, it’s nice to know more about the characters, but not if the information will be dumped into the film indiscriminately. These scenes are just dead weight.

But this is a movie that’s always moving forward. There is always something happening. It may not be something that will be explained, but it will be something exciting, or, failing that, just something loud and frantic. Though it comes with plenty of potential for nitpicking, I must say that this is a fun movie. It’s a kinetic explosion of thrills that barrels along without a second thought given to nuance or meaning. This is cinema that is little more than pleasingly stupid and exciting.

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