Last November I had guest reviewer Sam LeGassick from The Wild Bore tackle the latest Tony Scott film, Unstoppable for the website. Sam’s a fellow movie nut like The Mike and I and I’ve always enjoyed hearing his take on films. He was quick to pan Tony Scott’s runaway train film and told audiences to steer clear of the film. Frankly, at the time I wasn’t surprised. Tony Scott hasn’t made a good film since 1996’s The Fan (and no, Man on Fire was not good, you just want to think it was). Scott became too tied up in the art of film making and forgot how to make a good film. So when Sam panned it, I shrugged and said to myself, “figures!” The problem is, I am drawn to Tony Scott films like a moth to a light. Even if I know in my heart they will be bad, I’ll still add them to queues and watch them on DVD from my favorite DVD by mail service.
Amazingly I learned something very different from Sam’s original review posted on our site. Unstoppable turned out to be a much better movie than I had ever expected. Now, coming off of another Tony Scott train wreck of a movie called The Taking of Pelham 123, it wouldn’t take much for Scott to create a masterpiece in comparison. Scott again returns to the train yards for Unstoppable and once again brings his buddy Denzel Washington with him. This time Washington is an aging conductor nearing retirement who is training a rookie (Chris Pine) on the day that an unmanned, runaway train is speeding down the tracks with enough explosive compounds to be a missile the size of the Chrysler building. Being the wise ol’ railroader he is, Denzel decides to run this train down and he and his new rookie are going to do what no one else can do- stop this run away choo-choo.
What I really liked about Unstoppable was that Scott didn’t push the arty style. He stopped over saturating the screen with grey/green filters, and stopped doing wicked ADHD induced jump cuts from scene to scene. Hints of these stylistic choices were there, but he didn’t rub your face in it as he has been prone to do in his latest films. I found myself for the first time in over 10 years saying, “That’s a great, classic Tony Scott shot!” It was rich in color, contrast and it kept a steady pace that didn’t feel disjointed and choppy. I didn’t feel like the director had just snorted speed before yelling action. I had a great time with this film. Scott took something so simple and made it intriguing, suspenseful and just plain fun. You found yourself rooting for the good guys and wanting “the bad guy” to be brought down.
Which brings me to my next point, the film’s villain. After watching Toy Story 3 and meeting Lotso Bear, I thought I preferred that my villains smelled of strawberries, but train 777 from Unstoppable taught me that a runaway train is also a worthy adversary. Tony Scott found a way to make a moving hunk of metal become a villain. You actually hated the train, despite the fact that it had no “reason” for doing anything. It wasn’t motivated to kill anyone, it simply was doing it’s job-transporting cargo on a track. None the less as a viewer you felt connected to the characters and you wanted the big, evil, runaway train to be stopped. The fact that there was no bargaining and no reasoning with the train meant that it was just a match of brains vs. brute force, or man vs. machine that would eventually win the day. Something about that theme resonates well in this film and Scott reigns in on it and takes advantage.
Certainly there are things about the film that could use some improvements. The film brags that it was “based on a true story”, which translates to in real life an unmanned train rolled down the track at 10 MPH for a good stretch until someone jumped back on it and hit the brakes. However in Unstoppable the train barrels down the track at 60 mph. Despite long stretches of track, countryside and high speeds train 777 only manages to knock around a few things. I actually wanted to see some more train destruction. Don’t get me wrong, the film had suspense but things going “Kaboom!” keep my attention span even more and look really cool. What can I say? I’m a guy! I like seeing stuff blow up and stuff being destroyed. Also, Denzel leaves a bit more to be desired. Denzel has become a cookie cutter shell of himself, and in Unstoppable Denzel plays Denzel. You know every one of his “cool” antics, and feel like you’ve seen this performance 1000 times. Whether he is teaching Ethan Hawke about life on the streets as a cop in Training Day or teaching Chris Pine about life on the tracks in Unstoppable, he’s the same guy.
As Unstoppable hit theaters, Saturday Night Live did a digital short that did a nice job of nailing the sheer silliness of Unstoppable. I’ve linked the video here in the post and encourage you to check it out for a good laugh. The Denzel impersonation is about spot on for what you will get out of the film, and the premise sadly enough really is * almost * that cheesy. But it’s cheese that is done well. I had a lot of fun with Unstoppable. If Tony Scott can promise me another film like this, I’ll be at his next movie in theaters opening night. That would mean I’d have to take time off from work from my day job of selling popcorn to folks on opening night- but if it means the return of the good ol’ days of Tony Scott, count me in.