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Okay, raise your hands if you owned a train set when you were a kid. Okay, now you parents out there, do your kids watch Thomas the Tank Engine on a regular basis? I ask these questions to prove a point: despite its reduced use in our transporation system, almost all of us have a fascination with railroads. Maybe it’s the big powerful locomotives, or the intricacies and puzzle-like nature of the railroad tracks themselves, but somewhere deep down inside of all of us (yes, even you Moe) is a love for all things related to trains. Yet, when we look at popular culture, there have been very few films on the subject. Runaway Train (a great film in its own right) comes to my mind as the last decent film I have seen on the subject and that was a long time ago. So I was excited when I first saw the trailer for Unstoppable, Tony Scott’s latest film about a runaway train. The trailer had me hooked and I couldn’t help but get excited watching it. Luckily for all of us, the excitement in the trailer is about one-tenth the excitement you will experience on-screen.
Unstoppable is based on the true events of the “Crazy Eights” unmanned train incident in 2001. The train left its Walbridge, Ohio rail yard and began a sixty-six mile journey through northwest Ohio with no one at the controls. Apparently, the engineer left his slow moving train in order to switch a line. However, this genius didn’t set the train’s dynamic breaking system and he watched in horror as the train sped away. Two of the train’s tank cars contained thousands of gallons of molten phenol, a toxic ingredient of paints and dyes. Attempts to derail the train failed, and police were unable to shoot out the fuel release valve. For two hours, the train traveled along at speeds up to forty-seven miles-per-hour until the crew of a second train coupled onto the runaway and slowly applied its brakes allowing railroad employees to eventually stop the train.
Aside from some exaggerated tension and unique plot twists, this is essentially the story behind Unstoppable. What brings this story to life however is the incredible directing by Tony Scott and brilliant performances by both Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. We should all have a good feeling about this film going in, as Tony Scott is a master at placing us in surroundings and making us feel like we are there. He made us feel like we were in an F14 in Top Gun, and later took us several hundred feet below the sea in Crimson Tide. His movies generally leave me on the edge of my seat and Unstoppable is no different. Scott uses a variety of camera angles to build tension and give us a perspective of the raw power behind this speeding locomotive. The train itself becomes the main character and that’s not an easy task to accomplish.
This is not to say that Washington and Pine merely phone it in and let the train do all the work. Their performances are equally as powerful. Washington plays an old-timer who is forced to share his shift with Pine, a rookie conductor who has apparently been promoted in the union because of family connections. Pine has his own problems to deal with as he’s been kicked out of his house by his wife. The tension in the cab between the two of them is very believable, and yet they must put their differences aside in order to stop the runaway train. Denzel and Pine work very well together in this film and, in a way, their characters are reflections of where they stand in Hollywood (the aging stud performer vs. the up-and-coming new guy). Hopefully, as in the film, Pine can learn a thing or two from Denzel, because I can’t remember seeing him in a bad film.
All-in all, Unstoppable is simply two hours of non-stop fun at the movies. Sure it’s a bit over-the-top, but what good popcorn movie isn’t? My wife and I were on the edge of our seats the entire time, and there was tons of applause at the end of the film. Unstoppable probably won’t win any Academy Awards, but I will say that is is by far the best film I have seen this fall; and I’m sure it’s better than a lot of the foliday films that are about to be dumped on us. So grab a friend or significant other and get on board for one hell of a ride!
Rating = 4.5 buckets-o-popcorn