I won’t mince words: Tony Scott’s Unstoppable is one of the best directorial efforts to come out of Hollywood this year. Technically masterful, emotionally even-handed and physically weighty, it is the most accessible of Scott’s recent deconstructions of the American condition. Even better, the action sequences stand two heads above anything else made this year.
On his fifth outing with Scott, Denzel Washington plays Frank Barnes, an aging motorman working towards retirement. Will Colson, played with fluent charisma by Chris Pine, is a rookie conductor going out for his first day on the tracks with Barnes as mentor. The relationship is rough from the get-go. Colson is related to management and works for far less money than those of Barnes’s generation. He represents the new class pushing out the old, and Barnes never lets him forget it.
Elsewhere, a bumbling driver named Dewey, played by sad sack Ethan Suplee, accidentally loses control of a half-mile long train with hazardous chemicals in tow. The series of events that lead to this happening are too confusing to list here, but it should be noted that they are completely believable and, more alarmingly, probable. The film, after all, is inspired by true events.
The brilliance of Unstoppable is that the conflict, the speeding train, lacks a human antagonist. Human error is the cause, a force that weighs heavily on Dewey throughout the film. There are no terrorists whose motivations we need question, no obstacles of evil to resist. There is, however, a bad guy. His name is Galvin (Kevin Dunn), the head of the rail company who is concerned only with the bottom line, not the toll on human life the train could cause. Through him, we see the evils of capitalism. A room full of smarmy executives decide the fates of whole cities based solely on stock prices. The class struggle between Colson and Barnes is obliterated by Galvin’s greed.
It really isn’t until the last third of the film that Colson and Barnes begin to chase the runaway train. Before that, a spectacular plan is put in place to slow the train down and drop an ex-marine onto it from a helicopter. The sequence is pitch perfect, not only for its spectacle but for the seriousness with which it handles human vulnerability. The danger is extremely real, and as things go awry (as they are wont to do), the audience is able to feel the pain alongside everyone on screen. In a world of PG-13 action films, cartoon violence seems to prevail. Here, when a person falls down for good, it rips you apart. Unstoppable nabbed a PG-13 rating, proving you can make action that hurts and get it past the MPAA.
Huge kudos to Chris Lebenzon and Robert Duffy who edited the piece. It’s not easy to get the right kind of tension with as much camera movement as Scott uses, but they were remarkably up to the challenge. The film has its quiet moments which pull us to the edge of our seats, and the final leg of the pursuit is a stunning bit of old-school action. In general, rail action is something of a throwback. There is a blatant message of blue-collar workmanship, and the men and women (I should mention Rosario Dawson holds things down on the mic as yardmaster Connie Hooper) who keep rail travel running feel as ancient as the tracks on which they drive. Of course, when a train goes out of control, all the MBAs in the world couldn’t save us from ourselves.
Tony Scott may be the closest thing we have to a backlot director. He works hard, he works fast, and his films are successful enough (extremely successful, actually) to allow him to make the films he wants. He wields a massive, captive audience and his films have long been parables for the current American landscape. Sometimes, it takes a foreigner to expose who we are. Whatever it is that Scott has to say about us, his technique and his message have never matched up as beautifully as in Unstoppable.