Reviewed by C.J. Bunce
If you saw Taking of Pelham 123 with Denzel Washington you may sense a bit of a deja vu. That’s probably because both starred Washington and were directed by Tony Scott, who knows how to film an unrelenting train ride. But Unstoppable doesn’t need the criminal elements to carry a nail-biting story simmering at first then racing non-stop through the final action sequence.
Two-time Oscar winner Washington shares equal screen time with co-stars Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek) and Rosario Dawson (Sin City), who particularly shines as a smart, lead dispatcher who uses her experience to try to convince railway executives of the unusual danger of this train full of chemical cars racing through rural Pennsylvania without an engineer onboard, pursuing a sharp turn in the more densely populated city of Stanton.
As the story begins, a befuddled engineer (Ethan Suplee, My Name is Earl) steps off the train to change tracks, when the engine slips into full gear and takes off down the track. Dawson plays Connie, the lead dispatcher who realizes the danger as the train accelerates head-on through train stops, encountering a head-on train of school children, a car wreck on the tracks with frantic horses, and another train being driven by Frank (Washington), who has spent decades on the rails and who recently was given his retirement notice, and newbie conductor Will (Pine) on his first day working with Frank. Kevin Dunn plays the railway representative who, despite warnings from Connie, continues to make the wrong decisions and fails to get the train to stop. Lew Temple plays a train welder down the line who comes in and out of the story with a bit of humor, fed up with the failed attempts at stopping the train. Kevin Corrigan plays a railway inspector adding his own theoretical and mathematical contributions to the core team’s strategy (think if train A leaves town at 5 p.m. and travels at 55 mph and train B advances in the oposite direction at 70 mph, at what time will the trains collide??).
The first third of the film is a pretty comfortable ride. We get to know about Frank and his daughters, and Will and his problems with his wife, played by Jessy Schram (Life, and young Allison on Medium). The camera angles and slow-build really sets up the action in a believable, non-Hollywood way, and the ride is steady and not overdone.
After the experience and decisions of Frank working via radio with Connie prove invaluable, the stakes are raised as Frank and Will attempt a reverse speeding pursuit of the train and we get to see incredibly-shot filming of some nice stunt work as Pine and Washington take turns physically trying to take control of the train. Director Scott could have taken the story, based in part on an actual runaway train through Ohio in 2001, in typical directions, but he instead offers a more nuanced pursuit that is more subtle, while still maintaining humor and a number of great action scenes, including multiple attempts to jump on the train from a truck, harrowing train dangling by Pine, and Washington running atop and jumping between railroad cars. For the film’s climax Scott gives us a chase scene that involves trains doing what we’ve only seen stunt cars do in the past.
In a summer of blockbusters and overly marketed video releases, this less advertised action movie should not be missed. Rating: 4 of 5 stars. On DVD and Blu-Ray.