Unstoppable is occasionally just as rousing but less emotionally fraught—a brainless actioner in which the characters have a mere line or two of backstory about which you really don’t care. Its main character, after all, is a train—a runaway train, as director Tony Scott and writer Mark Bomback won’t let us forget. Or, more dramatically: It’s a “missile the size of the Chrysler Building!” For good measure, the thing roars like Jurassic Park’s dinomonsters. This film isn’t doing Amtrak any favors.
The drama begins when a lazy railyard employee (Ethan Suplee) hops off a train he’s moving to flip a switch and can’t manage to get back on. (He’s taking the locomotive to another track to make room for another one that will ferry students on a train-safety field trip. The children!) At first those in charge assume it’s a “coaster,” i.e., a train that will eventually stop once it runs out of momentum. But dude left it under power, which means it picks up speed (and without its air brakes engaged!) until it’s, well, essentially unstoppable. Plus, re: that missile quote, it’s carrying toxic chemicals. Of course it is.
Waiting on the other end of the line is the film’s unwitting humanization, railroad engineer Frank (Denzel Washington) and conductor Will (Star Trek’s Chris Pine). They’re an odd couple, of course. Frank is nearing a forced retirement, and Chris is a hotshot who the old guys resent because he’s one of the young things taking their jobs. So the two bicker and banter and talk about why we’re supposed to root for them: Frank’s wife died and he has a somewhat lacking relationship with his teenage daughters, and Chris’ wife has a temporary restraining order against him, which keeps him from seeing his son and means she won’t take his calls.
But back to that runaway train. When all attempts to stop it fail, it’s up to Frank and Will to save the day, lest it either collide with our potential heroes’ train or derail in a populous Pennsylvania town and cause mass destruction.
If you’re the type to whoop, gasp, and clap during movies, Unstoppable is designed to make you do so. Scott, shockingly, has his irritating, frenetic editing style somewhat under control, limiting himself to some staccatoed shots and lots of close-ups of sparking rails and panicked eyes. And because we need some bust-ups before the big, inevitable showdown, there are even a few random car crashes and explosions to sate overzealous action fans. Meanwhile, dialogue includes barked lines like “Luck has no business in a rail yard!”
It’s all utterly stupid yet utterly gripping, its tension coming not so much from concern about whether our main characters will survive as this view of train travel as the most dangerous form of transit. In between booms, Washington, Pine, and Rosario Dawson (as head of the railroad line) lend enough charm and pedigree to save Unstoppable from B-movie status. But in the battle of man vs. metal, it’s the thrill of the latter that may make you applaud.