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Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Little-Late Film Review: Unstoppable (2010)

Boy, there are a lot of movies that try to show us the inside world of a profession we never knew we wanted to experience.  We got the Fast and the Furious, Bring it On!, and ever so many more films that take the professions they portray so serious as to be comical at times.  These stories are always told from the perspective of a rookie, who is pressured to prove himself to the grizzled veterans, who begin by mocking him.  Shortly after the rookie’s acceptance, we get a line like “Welcome to the big leagues.”

This is true for all films like this.  Sometimes, like in the case of Unstoppable, it is successful in that it doesn’t so much focus on this rookie’s travels through the ranks, but more on a single event and how two rivals are forced to work together and depend on each other to save the day.  So what could be so menacing that these two men are so driven to put aside their differences?  How about a runaway train barreling down the tracks at full-speed filled with a very volatile chemical?

After a foolish mistake by a hapless engineer (Ethan Suplee), a very long haul escapes and there is nothing that can stop it (the cosmic forces that align to ensure this train’s escape are a little absurd, but I’ll let that one slide).  From here, we get a number of traditional character clichés that would appear in this sort of film: The frazzled, smart boss back at home base (Rosario Dawson), the criminally negligent and idiotic exec who never listens to the experts and causes the deaths of people (Kevin Dunn), the enigmatic stranger with all the answers (Kevin Corrigan) and then there’s the heroes…

Will (Chris Pine) is a former service member who suffers from personal demons.  A recent violent tangle with his wife has caused him personal pain, and his wife’s fear and anger has caused her to grow distant and cut off contact with him.  His attempts to reach out to her fail.  Frank (Denzel Washington), is a smart and skilled freight train worker who is very brave.  He is embittered by the fact that he is convinced Will was hired as his replacement, who he is forced to train.  He suffers from a similar at-home issue as he almost forgot to call his daughter on her birthday; she is angry about this.  Both of these home-side struggles are nothing more than a device to give these two characters something to talk about to connect and to provide a moment of redemption for them at the end of the film; they serve no purpose to the actual plot.

Clichés and contrivances aside, the performances are good.  Chris Pine was likable in Star Trek as he is here as well.  Also, Denzel Washington is consistently good and here he elevates what could have been a typical and uninspired character to a deep, and very real person.  These two carry about half of the film together, so the fact that their interactions seem real despite the weak material they have to deal with is a relief.  Rosario Dawson is good as well.  I like Dawson and think, given the right role, she could achieve Oscar-Winner status.  Kevin Dunn is the same as ever; he isn’t bad, so much as typical.  Then there’s Kevin Corrigan.  You may remember this performer as the coke-snorting Stock Market shark in the popular TV series Damages.  His performance is very strange; almost understated.  Early in the film he seems as though he doesn’t know what state he’s in, but in the third act he is an engineering genius.  This character is a very odd addition to the film, and Corrigan seems to have taken him in an unexpected direction that is almost uncomfortably strange at times. 

The action scenes are where Unstoppable shines.  The practical effects abound instead of leaning toward a CGI-heavy copout.  As a result, the moments of suspense are solid and tense.  You can feel the weight and power of the train as it darts along the tracks.  The landscape surrounding these scenes are also well-chosen, giving us the backdrop we need to feel just how fast this train is actually moving.  The well-done action set pieces were what kept bringing me back into the film after bouts of predictable dialogue.  My only complaint about the action is that, especially towards the end of the film, much of the more tense moments are shown to us from the perspective of news reels or computer monitors.  The shots that are on the train are obscured or shaky, making it difficult to see what the characters are doing to stop the train.  The news shots actually suck you out of the action, creating a disconnect.  This is really the biggest flaw in the action, but it is forgivable. 

Unstoppable is not a great film by any means.  It suffers from some strange directorial choices, clichéd characters, contrived and meaningless subplots and a perfect storm created by plot conveniences that probably could never occur in real life.  Still, there was a likable quality to the film, and the leads elevate the weak material.  Tony Scott is only an okay director, giving us such films as Man on Fire, Enemy of the State and Top Gun.  None of these films are bad, they are just like Unstoppable.  They are passable.  Unstoppable’s heavy, power in the form of the train is what saves it.  There is a very real feeling of menace you get from many of the shots.  If you can get past some of the sillier dialogue, this can be an enjoyable hour and a half for a less-discriminating film fan.

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