On one of two commentary tracks, director Tony Scott ("Top Gun," "Crimson Tide") talks with writer Mark Bomback about all the scenes in "Unstoppable," picking them apart and providing would-be screenwriters with a case study in how to structure a script for a movie whose sole purpose is to entertain.
Wannabe screenwriters ought to pay attention. Despite filling the boiler with every cliché contained in his previous films with Denzel Washington--"Man on Fire" and "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3"--Scott still manages to stoke "Unstoppable" with enough heat to take it to the finish line.
For Washington, it's the flipside of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," in which he played a controller seeking to resolve a desperate situation involving a train. This time he's onboard, though for him it's probably more déjà vu from "Training Day"--only instead of evaluating a young up-and-comer, he's teamed with one he's trying to school.
"This ain't training. In training they just give you an F. Out here you get killed."
In the biggest cliché of the film, Washington, the wise old veteran engineer, is teamed with an inexperienced conductor. But rather than apologize or shrink from a stock situation like this, Bomback and Scott embrace it, turning it into a bigger deal. ALL the old veterans who are being gradually forced to retire resent newbies coming into their work world. "I don't like workin' in a day care," one of the grizzled vets growls. "And I don't like workin' in a retirement home," new conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) snaps back.
More clichés follow. The camera zeroes in on the pictures of two daughters that Frank keeps on the train, and of course he has to phone them to tell them how much he loves them just before all heck breaks loose--because if something happens to him, they're all alone in the world. And Will just happens to have an estranged wife who needs a little life-and-death reminder of how much she really loves him after all. Likewise, if you're going to have a runaway train, it has to be carrying volatile toxic chemicals, right?
Cover notes say that this is "inspired by true events," and I'm guessing that every working stiff in the audience probably believes the "true" part is that some dipstick somewhere probably did something dumb as Dewey (Ethan Suplee) when, ordered to move one train to a different track to make way for an oncoming train carrying school children on a field trip, he doesn't take the time to connect the air brakes. Then he goes for the double axel of stupidity by jumping off his train as it's coasting forward in order to manually engage a stubborn switch. That's how it all starts: one dumb-ass moment of poor judgment. First the train chugs slowly away from him and everyone laughs. But then, because of vibrations--I had an Oldsmobile like this, that popped into gear and crashed right into the back of my house--the throttle goes from neutral to full power. Suddenly, it's no laughing matter.
Or maybe "suddenly" is the wrong way to put it. As the train picks up speed, so does the movie. The Pennsylvania stationmaster where it all begins (Rosario Dawson) tries to alert everyone but the President of the United States, but her efforts run counter to the big company boss (Kevin Dunn), who'd rather not do anything too drastic to stop (and damage) the train. It's an investment, after all.
There are no back stories or side plots to slow this runaway train story down, other than a brief conversation that Frank and Will have. Otherwise, it's just news stations reporting, helicopters hovering, mission control peeing their pants, and everyone along the route hearing whole choirs of Johnny Cash singing, "I hear the train a'comin'." But crazily, it's still entertaining, so credit Scott for creating a little tension, then building it, steadily, and gradually upping the explosion and destruction ante from initial close calls to eventual fireballs.
"Unstoppable" is a pure popcorn movie that falls somewhere in the high-6 or 7 out of 10 range, and nothing more. But Washington has these films down to a science by now, and it's fun to watch a consummate professional do his thing.
You notice two things about "Unstoppable": the bright, bold color palette, and the thin layer of grain that Scott decided to go with, no doubt to give it a gritty feel. But there's still a nice amount of detail that you catch even in middle shots. "Unstoppable" is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen, and it really does look great in 1080p.
You'd hope that the audio in a runaway train film would be phenomenal, and it is. The subwoofer works overtime in this film, and there's plenty of rumble and movement across the sound field. There's also a nice wide spread across the front speakers, too, so even the dialogue feels more dynamic. This is a big, bold, noisy film, and the speakers nicely channel it all so that it still registers, still makes sense. Credit Mark P. Stoeckinger, who earned an Oscar nomination for his sound editing work.
First things first: fans of Digital Copy will appreciate that there's one included in this two-disc set.
In addition to commentary track that's basically a recording of the director-writer conversations, we get Scott alone for a more traditional walk-through, taking us from concept through pre-production, production, and post-production. Both tracks are worth a listen, but screenwriters will want to make a note to catch that Bomback-Scott conversation.
The longest bonus feature is a 30-minute making-of extra that takes you behind the scenes so you can see the way the film was shot and the way that some of the stunts were set up. It turns out that what you're seeing is for the most part CGI-free. In a supplementary feature (13 min.), cast members are interviewed on-location and asked to share their thoughts and experiences on the film. Fans of stunt-work will enjoy a 15-minute feature on all the moving-train human feats, and there's even an Anatomy of a Scene feature that shows a real-time derailment shot without any CGI work. Rounding out the bonus features is a BD-Live feature, though if you're not already hooked up to the Internet it's a waste of time stretching your Ethernet cable for a 3-minute clip and "IMDB Live Look-up."
As popcorn movies go, this one doesn't insult your intelligence, it includes decent performances, and it builds a nice head of steam from beginning to end. Sure it's riddled with clichés, but Scott still creates a film that entertains in spite of them all. I'd probably give it a 6.7 if we could do decimals, and that rounds up to a 7.