Unstoppable – 2010
Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Supplie, Kevin Corrigan, Lew Temple, T.J. Miller, Jessy Schram
Written by Mark Bowen
Lew Temple is someone I cannot recall having seen before, although he has been in a handful of decent films in bit parts. His
role in Tony Scott’s Unstoppable is one of those that makes movies of this kind work, even though they are laden in cliché. Playing Ned Oldham, a loquacious and somewhat annoying railroad welder with the gift of gab who, by virtue of being at the right place at the right time, plays an instrumental part in the conclusion of the events depicted in the film. As much as I have a disdain for the directorial style of Tony Scott, it takes someone with his clout to be able to make a true character actor, warts and all, in a spot where a bigger name would stick out unnecessarily and painfully.
Tony, brother of Ridley Scott, has been a very successful director for a long time. He also has been a very annoying director for a long time. Top Gun, considered by many to be a classic, had many annoying tics that he has repeated several times since. The list of detestable testosterone fests include the following:
- Beverly Hills Cop II
- Days of Thunder
- The Fan
- Spy Game
- Taking of Phelam 123 and probably the worst movie of the last decade…
- Man on Fire
There are many films in this group that were immensely popular, and for the most part, start with a solid, all man, rah-rah premise. The problem I have with Scott is, for every decent aspect to his films, there are at least 2 or 3 that are either cheesy or beyond ridiculous. And then the editing. The cuts made in a Tony Scott film are enough to give one epilepsy. Scribbles, scrabbles, slashes, scrunched film, partial head shots, double takes at slightly changed angles, all at a hyper-kinetic speed. It’s like he’s holding the story ransom and doling out bits here and there, to make one invest more time in it. I usually want just to walk away. Some of this is in evidence here, but not even close to his earlier efforts.
This story is one of those that Scott got right. Whether the story was just solid or it’s hard to quick cut train shots, I am unsure, but a number of things work here. The first is the story. Based on the CSX 8888 runaway train incident that occurred in 2001, the movie places dramatic flourishes here and there, but one would really be hard pressed to keep a movie about a runaway train from turning into Scott’s usual beer commercial material. For whatever reason, he is able to tone his instincts down to a muted growl, best exemplified in the day care / retirement home exchange at the beginning of the film.
The pacing here is crucial, and Scott wastes very little time with exposition. He gets everyone working (because this is what men do) and lets fate do its job. All details are relevant here. From the moment you hear the mention of a field trip of children, you know that will come into play. Then when you hear about a few extra cars on one train, you know that will be
relevant. Predictable, yes, but not entirely. The path taken to get the protagonists on the train is original for cinema, yet true to the event. The show for those same protagonists is played at times that work well with the pace and with the point at which acquaintances are drawn by circumstance to do so. Even the customary idiot of the film is limited to a phone call from miles away (in the big city) sticking around just long enough to make a few mistakes that serve to make things harder for the smart ones.
As for the smart ones, Denzel slides right in the role that seems to mark the last film he did with Scott, …Phelam 123. The old, honest guy, being pushed aside to retirement, saving people because he has integrity. Denzel is a little young for this role, it would seem, but he sure is good at it. He takes his time, rolls along with the story and does not get too riled. He does get invested though, always seeming to have the right answer for the time. In the hands of another actor, this would have been a weak spot. In Denzel’s, it is a strength.
Chris Pine made a dazzling debut as a lead with the classic Star Trek in 2009. His talent is immense and his skill has yet to be fully developed. His range could be immense, but what he does now, with his cocksure attitude is quite enough to entertain the masses. Confidence would not be enough to keep them, though, and he knows this. His role could be seen as cliché as well, were it not for his role in making his current situation at the start of the film. He doesn’t make every step look like fate is inconsequential to the strength of his resolve, either. He is stopped early on by a foot injury, leading to one of the better exchanges of the film. Exposing that kind of weakness is not customary in action films. It is in good ones.
Rosario Dawson does a great job running things from the side. She has just enough arrogance, intellect and more than enough sincerity to keep the intensity up. This is an unusually good role for her, casting against the type one would expect from a woman of her beauty. Then again, she’s never really been one to trade exclusively on beauty.
Which brings us back to Lew. The guy does not look like the kind of guy one would want or expect to see on a big screen. Yet here he is, driving at breakneck speed, commandeering police escorts, trying to catch the train. His involvement brings the viewer that much closer to the prospect that everyone has an action movie possible within their daily life, if only they take the moment and seize the opportunity. His involvement, more than anything, brings the impact of the movie home.
Did Tony Scott finally figure something out with this film? Did someone tell him to rein it in, stop with the annoying tricks and just let the camera roll? I doubt it. My guess is more that he found the right film to fit his skills, and just guessed that people would want to see the train roll straight ahead, rather than from right to left, a stuttering inch at a time.
(**** out of *****)