What could possibly go wrong on a fixed track? The incredibly unlikely series of events that leads to the crisis in Unstoppable is preposterous, and the “inspired by true events” tag is long forgotten by the time Denzel Washington is leaping from carriage to carriage, manually applying breaks and generally saving the day. Unbelievably, the film actually was inspired by the 2001 CSX 8888 incident (also called the “Crazy Eights” unmanned train incident), in which very similar circumstances lead to a runaway train tearing through Ohio. Indeed, with over 50 recorded rail accidents around the world last year, and three already in 2011 at the time of writing, it is definitely within the realm of possibilities that an accident like this could occur. However, the focus here is not reality but excitement, and Unstoppable manages to shovel the coal faster than most.
Despite characters lifted directly out of the Action Movie Discount Warehouse (where you don’t have to pay an excess on emotional baggage), Unstoppable is a tightly-paced action film that manages to hit all the right buttons (unlike a certain rail engineer). The narrative is very much “on rails”, not departing much from the vehicular thrill model laid down by 1994’s Speed (or even as far back as Steven Spielberg’s Duel). Yet within the framework of this very tried and true formula, director Scott manages to deliver a film with the momentum of a runaway freight train (just couldn’t resist). Absolutely every obstacle, both the physical and the emotional kind, has been strategically planted to cost cinema chains a fortune in buffing fingernail marks out of armrests. This is not an intellectual pursuit, after all, but one based on pure adrenaline. Formulas are continually used for a reason: when they are done right, they work superbly. Unstoppable runs like a well-oiled engine.
The performances are also top-notch, with the actors making the most of the cookie-cutter characters that they have been given. We’ve got Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk and seasoned Man on Fire Denzel Washington taking on the machine and The Man, in the form of the fictional Allegheny and West Virginia Railroad (AWVR) company, with a corporate symbol that bears more than a passing resemblance to Weyland-Yutani from the Alien series. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the railroad company represents all that is wrong in the world, and it is not so much the train but the actions of the evil empire that makes them the enemy. Corporate tool Galvin (Kevin Dunn) chooses bottom line over human life, and this is a meme that repeats throughout the film: Washington is a soon-to-be-laid-off worker with a grudge against new boy Pine, perceived as being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Despite being made by a major corporation (Fox, whose logo must appear at least two dozen times throughout the film in various guises), this is a film celebrating the blue-collar workers that structured the backbone of America with their bare hands, or something.
The title of Unstoppable is clearly a misnomer, as the train clearly has to stop one way or the other by the time the film reaches its dramatic conclusion. Yet Stoppable looks far less interesting on a marquee and probably wouldn’t have quite the same commercial appeal. Trainspotters will no doubt pick this film apart for a lack of accuracy, while simultaneously drooling over the highly fetishistic shots of trains from every conceivable angle. Yet this is almost secondary to the moment, the palpable tension created out of the logically unbelievable. Action films have certainly evolved over the last year, taking us from the retro joys of video games (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) to the more existentialist pursuits of the mind (Inception, TRON: Legacy). It is reassuring to know that a speeding locomotive can still elicit simple thrills.
Unstoppable was released by Twentieth Century Fox in Australia on January 6, 2011