**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee
screenplay by Mark Bomback
directed by Tony Scott
by Walter Chaw It's strange to be writing this review a couple of days after Tony Scott ended his life by walking off a bridge in California--an event that inspired me to revisit my favourite of his films (Enemy of the State and Déjà Vu) and one that spurred me, too, to finally give Scott's Unstoppable another look after finding I had little use for it upon initial release. I have an aversion to Scott's movies in general; I don't have the muscle or sensitivity to distinguish between them and other stuttering, grandiloquent pictures that have resulted in things like Michael Bay. Believe me, the temptation is high to present a critical re-evaluation of his work immediately upon his passing. Positioning oneself as the guy who knew that Chris Farley was John Belushi is one of those vantages every critic wishes he had, if only for the brief respite from charges of elitism it might bring. But listen, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Domino, Spy Game, The Fan, Days of Thunder, and Beverly Hills Cop 2--there's really no defense for any of it. And when I say that I like stuff like The Hunger, True Romance, The Last Boy Scout, or even Scott's Jim Harrison adaptation Revenge, I'm not saying I love them. Tony Scott's an auteur, sure--proof that "auteur" doesn't by itself confer a positive or a pejorative connotation. I'll give him this, though: He shot a Tarantino script as a remake of Badlands and produced a sneaky sequel to The Conversation, so, yeah, I'll miss the bastard, too.
Unstoppable is the fifth collaboration between Scott and Denzel Washington, who, this time around, plays weary veteran train conductor Frank. Frank is going to be laid off because he's been around too long and makes too much money, so he's given the humiliating task of training his ostensible replacement, Will (Chris Pine). The scuttlebutt at the yard is that Will is a product of nepotism--a rookie with no skills or knowledge sent to earn a quarter of the salary; welcome to life in these United States. Their boss back in the room with the lighted boards and monitors is Connie (Rosario Dawson), and the fat idiot responsible for turning a train on full-throttle and then jumping off it is Dewey (Ethan Suplee). That's pretty much it. The reason it works as well as it does is that Denzel is lovely in the role of noble, put-upon elder statesman. If you wanted to be snarky about it, you could say that he played this exact character in his prior film for Tony Scott (Pelham). Why not, though? He's good at it, and his warmth in the role is so comfortable it's unconscious. His Frank is worried about his job, worried about his retirement, and worried about his two daughters who work at a Hooters for no other reason than, I think...Hooters. You could say it's because the film is inspired by a true story and maybe whoever Denzel is based on had daughters who worked at Hooters--but then you'd have to also not make up so much of the other crap that's in the movie to make it exciting. Will is having money troubles, too, and the connection he and Frank develop over the course of the film is, ultimately, affecting. It's kind of a shame, really, that the last part of Unstoppable is more interested in stopping the runaway train than it is in further developing their relationship. Wait, did I mention that the "unstoppable" of the title refers to a locomotive full of deadly chemicals headed for a high-school full of innocent children? Sorry.
There's lip service to Jaws with bureaucrats and capitalists who don't want to do the right thing until the monster is in the middle of all the civilians, plus a few terse scenes involving shouting into telephones and burying heads in hands. Unstoppable has value, though, if only as a showcase for matching dolly shots. Nah, just kidding. It has value as a vehicle for Washington and rising star Pine as they re-enact the testosterone cocktail of Andrey Konchalovskiy's magnificent Runaway Train, only with half the balls and thrice the slick. A moment where Frank reveals that threats to his job are meaningless because he's already received notice of his impending layoff ("half benefits") is chill-inducing despite the formula straitjacket. He tells his unctuous supervisor, "Not for you. I'm not doing this for you" when he refuses to call off his pursuit of the rogue engine, and there's a real, genuine evocation there of heroism in the common man. Unstoppable becomes, at that point, an honest little thing about finding honour and friendship in the midst of strife and privation. It's a reminder of the way we like to think of ourselves as bootstrap Americans--the culture war in précis as two blue-collar good-ol'-boys clean up the unpronounceable fuck-up of captains of industry and other masters of the universe. The title, then, is probably referring to the human spirit. That's corny, but it works.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Unstoppable comes home via Fox on a Blu-ray (w/Digital Copy) sporting a vibrant 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that preserves, with high fidelity, Scott's patented high-saturated, green-suffused palette. It's a solid, filmic presentation, rich in grain and fine detail--every single LED on the train board is distinct and sharp. You can also see every bunch and pull on Dawson's grey cardigan. Not that I was staring. While the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is technically excellent, the film is so epileptic that there's never much chance for the mix to sustain an impressive moment. A shame. Scott provides a commentary that's creepy for the proximity to his suicide. I wanted to hear something in his voice, I guess, but it's not there. Hale and energetic, he's unfortunately largely interested in talking narrative when something comparatively anecdotal was bound to be much more entertaining. He does briefly touch on both the events that triggered the film and his collaboration with screenwriter Mark Bomback--the usual stuff that could've just as easily been covered in a ten-minute doc.
Titled "Tracking the Story," a second yakker consists of recordings from Scott's story sessions with Bomback. It's amazing that there was this much to talk about, considering the film is fifty percent RATTLE RATTLE RUMBLE. Oh well, they do seem to get on well. "The Fastest Track" (30 mins., HD) is a standard making-of that reveals Scott did try to minimize CGI during production, resulting in the creation and innovation of equipment. "Derailed: Anatomy of a Scene" (10 mins., HD) dissects the final stunt, while "Hanging Off the Train: Stunt Work" (14 mins., HD) shows the sleights-of-hand employed, many dangerous, to get pulses pounding. "On the Rails: A Conversation with Director and Cast" (13 mins., HD) is another tough one to watch in light of Scott's death, as it sees him and his three leads chatting on set about what drew them to the project they believe they're making. Not a lot of meat here, alas. HiDef trailers for Unstoppable, Love and Other Drugs, Street Kings 2, 127 Hours, Machete, and Casino Jack round out the platter.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.