Extreme Situation, One-Note Characters Work in Unstoppable
- Friday, November 12, 2010
DVD Release Date: February 15, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: November 12, 2010
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and peril, and some language)
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 99 min.
Director: Tony Scott
Actors: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee, Jessy Schram, Elizabeth Mathis, Meagan Tandy, Lew Temple
In Unstoppable, the latest film from director Tony Scott (Domino, Spy Game, Enemy of the State), the premise is simple, the execution is competent and the film delivers the requisite amount of crowd-pleasing thrills and explosions. And yet, the film feels a little too easy in the depiction of its main characters, who are sketched out with scant information about their motivations. It's as if Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) didn't try very hard to give us characters we might care deeply about, relying instead on the goodwill we bring to the performers from their past work.
Frank (Denzel Washington) has worked for a Pennsylvania railroad company for years, but his company has decided it's time for him to go. He's working when a slovenly engineer (Ethan Suplee) down the line hops out of his train for a moment, only to watch as the multi-car train carrying toxic material pulls away from him without anyone at the controls.
A train traffic coordinator (Rosario Dawson) realizes the gravity of the situation, gets in touch with Frank, and works to keep the train from entering a populous region dotted with fuel tanks. Their only hope is to catch up to the runaway train, slow it down enough to board it and stop the train. To do that, Frank will have to work closely with new employee Will (Chris Pine), who's viewed by Frank's older co-workers as yet another threat to their jobs.
Why do we care about Frank? He's at a vulnerable age for a longtime employee, and we don't want to see him lose his job. He's also a widower. Why do we care about Will? He's on the outs with his wife and he's not able to see his son.
Beyond that, we know very little about these characters. They seem likable enough, but Scott and Bomback throw them together with the briefest outlines of who they are, allowing the film to concentrate on what it serves up best: destruction, mayhem and a few near misses involving the train. We know the film will spare no effort to pull our strings when, early in its run time, it sets a train filled with elementary-school children on a collision course with the out-of-control freight train. The film follows that by putting helpless horses in harm's way, before settling for collision-scenes involving inanimate objects.
The director/actor team of Scott and Washington has collaborated several times before: Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu and last year's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. While those films weren't perfect, they included more interesting performances from Washington. In Unstoppable, the star isn't given much to do. Pine's Will is the more intriguing character, with a back story that touches on the idea of second chances and overcoming mistakes. The film is at its best when Frank tells Will to reach out to his wife rather than accept the bad situation he finds himself in without her. "You've got to call her," Frank says. "You quit too easy." The advice is heartfelt, lasting only a moment before Unstoppable gets back to its main action.
It's Will who will rise to the moment, whose wife will look on as TV footage covers Will's every move (Frank's daughters do the same from their place of employment—Hooters). We cheer on the men, as do the watching masses glued to their TV sets, but it's the horror of what might go wrong and the potential mass loss of life that drives the emotional response more so than our investment in Frank or Will.
Is it asking too much that we care more about the central characters? Maybe. Even if narrowly focused, the film works on the one level it explores in-depth: How to slow, then stop, an out-of-control train full of harmful material. The train roars down the track, threatens to derail several times, and quickly approaches a bend in the track that it can't navigate at high speeds. Sparks fly, metal screeches, and the audience holds its breath.
If you don't demand anything more from a film, you won't be disappointed.
Drugs/Alcohol: Frank's daughters work in a restaurant/bar (Hooters) where alcohol is served and consumed.
Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; "f" word; d-mn; hell; s-it; b-tch; other vulgar language; middle finger is extended.
Sex/Nudity: Brief shot of Will in his underwear as he gets out of bed; Frank's daughters work at Hooters and are shown in their work uniforms.
Violence/Crime: Train knocks vehicles and other items off the track; train derailment; explosions; a man says he grabbed his wife but didn't hit her, and later brandished a gun; an attempt by someone to board the train goes horribly awry; Will is seriously wounded trying to stop the train.
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