In 2001, a train carrying a couple of cars worth of a combustible, toxic chemical called molten phenol accidentally left a train yard unmanned and traveled through Ohio reaching speeds of around 60 miles per hour. The train was eventually slowed down, from behind, by another train to a speed where a conductor could climb aboard and bring the locomotive to a stop.
Now, take this fairly straightforward and innocuous little story and put it in the hands of Tony Scott. The train becomes the length of the Chrysler Building, barreling through Pennsylvania (which, one supposes, is somehow more exciting than Ohio) at 70 miles per hour with enough chemicals and diesel fuel to level a small town. There are helicopters, evil corporations, police cars that wreck for no good reason and, of course, explosions. When the “Inspired by a True Story” disclaimer pops up before the film, keep in mind they mean this in the loosest possible sense.
All in all, this is a Tony Scott film, right down to the aggressive color palette and the intrusive editing, not to mention the requisite Denzel Washington role. Here, Washington (in the kind of role he could play under anesthesia) plays Frank, a train conductor who is being forced into early retirement, but not before he has to show the new guy, Will (Chris Pine, Star Trek), the ropes. The only problem is that grievous ineptitude in a distant train yard has caused a freight train to take off unmanned carrying all those aforementioned dangerous materials that could cause extensive property damage. Guess what? It’s up to our odd couple to risk life and limb and run down the train in an effort to stop it before it derails and blows up real neat.
There are some attempts at characterization in an effort to make the film feel like an actual movie, but this is definitely not the film’s main concern. All we know about Frank is that his wife died of cancer and that his two Hooters waitress daughters don’t really seem to like him, while Will is a hothead and a bit of an idiot who has managed to get a restraining order put out on him by his wife (TV actress Jessy Schram). Beyond that, who knows? The film doesn’t care as long as there is stuff to destroy. And boy, do they ratchet up what they can, with everything from exploding cop cars to a horse trailer to the potential for running through a train full of school kids. All they forgot was a damsel tied to the tracks or a baby carriage on the loose—now that would’ve been a movie!
The point of the film is to run over or blow up as many inanimate objects as possible, and within those limited aims, it must be admitted that it succeeds. Luckily, no one seems to think this is a serious movie they’re dealing with. And while Unstoppable never gets to the point of complete absurdity, it never presents itself as genuine drama, either. While I can’t recommend the film, neither can I say I was ever bored, which in and of itself is a small victory. Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language.