12 November 2010


Chris Pine, left, and Denzel Washington are shown in a scene from "Unstoppable."
"Unstoppable" is a lot like the runaway freight train at the center of the movie's action.

Starting slowly, it's kind of boring as it chugs along the tracks. We expect something dramatic to happen, but we're not sure what that is. We don't know what the stakes are. It's just a half-mile of screeching, groaning metal meandering through rural Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, locomotive engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) has taken conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine), fresh out of four months of training, under his wing for his first day on the job. Frank, who has been railroading for 28 years, and his other old-timer friends, many of whom have been laid off, resent youngsters like Will coming in and taking their jobs. So the pair spends the morning bickering and bonding, while dispatcher Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) searches for a way to stop the runaway train.

The first act threatens to drown us in railroad terminology and action that consists mostly of people talking to each other by phone. Tony Scott (working with Washington for the fifth time) directs the heck out of it, bombarding us with quick zooms, a barrage of uncomfortable close-ups and a camera that won't stop moving.

But as the train picks up speed, the movie does the same.

We learn the runaway is carrying thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals and a whole lot of fuel. After passing through a few small towns, it's heading to the (fictional) city of Stanton (with a population of more than 700,000), where the track has an elevated curve the speeding locomotive will not be able to take, thus derailing it and causing major damage. Stanton also is home to Will's entire family, including his estranged wife, Darcy (Jessy Schram), and young son.

The most important development: Frank and Will's train is on the same track, heading in the opposite direction, and after a narrow escape, Frank has a plan to save the day.

From this point forward, Scott ratchets up the suspense, hitting levels seldom achieved of late. I don't know if I have ever seen such a huge jump in quality from a film's first act to its second and third.

The screenplay by Mark Bomback ("Live Free or Die Hard"), which was inspired by a 2001 runaway train incident in Ohio, never turns Frank and Will into three-dimensional characters, but it adds some depth to each man, succeeding in making us care about their fates. Washington, doing what he always does, and Pine, playing just a slight variation of the bad-boy hero he showed us last year in "Star Trek," complement each other nicely, forming a compelling screen duo.

Among the supporting cast, Dawson makes enough of an impact to make us wish the screenplay had given her more to do, and Lew Temple is fun as a loose-cannon railroad employee.

"Unstoppable," though, is not the kind of movie that dwells on actors. It's an action flick, one that is refreshing for its lack of over-the-top set pieces and constant explosions.

Looking around the theater a few times as the movie raced toward its climax, I saw it is quite literally an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Greg's Grade: B+

(Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language. 98 minutes.)

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