Though based on actual 2001 events in Ohio that caused an unmanned freight train, laden with toxic waste, to go haywire, Unstoppable could just as well be set in the shining sun of Reagan's '80s. As the driverless locomotive begins gathering speed across rural Pennsylvania, bedecked with autumn leaves, it crosses through blue-collar hamlets full of hard-working men and women, loyal dogs, and fresh-cut grass. And it is from those plainspoken, beer-drinking, family-loving folks that two heroic railway workers shall break the rules and pursue that runaway train with their own locomotive, while TV news choppers whirl admiringly overhead.
Two heroes: one young and white (Chris Pine), the other mature and black (Denzel Washington). Two heroes: Will, unhappily separated from his wife and son; and Frank, a widower forced into early retirement by his employer of 28 years. But still they go after the errant train because it's the right thing to do. They don't need elitists or big government or special interests to provide orders or advice. Enough with this talk of physics and math and timetables — let's go get that train!
Oh, do you need to be told this is a Tony Scott film? Last year, the hectic action auteur did subways, in his The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 remake; this year, he's aboveground. Train movies are as old as the movies themselves, and it's almost impossible to make a boring railroad flick. We expect — and Scott duly delivers — scenes of trains smashing through cars, trains smacking into other trains, and people trying to jump aboard moving trains from helicopters, trucks, and other moving trains. When, stalled on the tracks, a trailer full of thoroughbreds has to be pulled whinnying out of harm's way, only then does the otherwise obvious Unstoppable miss an obvious rail/pursuit combination: Denzel Washington on a horse!
Sadly, this is not to be, though Frank eventually ends up atop the train, leaping manfully from one boxcar to the next, just as we expect. And the rest of the story (written by Mark Bomback) proceeds just as we expect too. It's like a mashup of classic commercials for Ford pickup trucks, Bud Lite, and Hooters (where, God help us, Frank's daughters are working their way through college). Frank's credo is "If ya gonna do something, do it right." Will's motivation is to keep the train from derailing in his hometown, where his estranged wife and child lie innocently sleeping next to a fuel depot. And, yes, since you ask: There is a train full of schoolchildren on the same track headed right toward the runaway train! (Still, I was disappointed that Scott didn't also add a caboose full of adorable puppies. Michael Bay would've added puppies.)
Pine, away from the helm of the USS Enterprise, adequately conveys a sense of tetchy insecurity as the junior partner in the chase. (Will's union connections got him the initial railroad job, and he isn't sure he deserved it.) Oscar on the mantel, Washington coasts comfortably in his role. His attitude of "You damn runaway trains get offa my lawn" is a lot less grouchy than, say, Harrison Ford at the same point in his career. Frank simply smiles at his inept railroad bosses and gets the job done.
And apart from one sympathetic manager (Rosario Dawson), the suits are corporate weasels who — no surprise — value profits over people. Still, Scott doesn't exactly take them to task: A CEO is briefly glimpsed on a golf course, muttering into a cell phone about a potential $100 million loss and diminished share prices, but he's never seen again, never held accountable.
In Unstoppable, cheerful, can-do populists save the day, but it's also the little guy whom the movie ultimately blames for the mishap. A preview audience hoorayed at the postscript stating how the dumb, doughy culprit was fired and today works in fast food. Never mind how that's the only alternative to a blue-collar job in some parts of the country. Never mind how a culture of cost-cutting has contributed to several rail-freight accidents in the past two decades — including the actual CSX near-disaster that inspired this movie. A Pennsylvania toxic-waste derailment occurred six months before that event, then again six months later in New York, during which time CSX reported record profits and its CEO went to work in the regulation-averse Bush administration. But that's a different movie.