Complaining about a lack of character development or understanding of social context in a Hollywood action movie is akin to being upset that your pet turtle can’t outrun the neighbor’s greyhound. It’s just not what they are built to do, correct? Not all movies can or should be judged by the same criteria. That’s not to imply some sort of sliding scale, but an acknowledgement that you can enjoy an action picture on its own merits while ignoring shortfalls that might otherwise be inexcusable in other types of films.
Unstoppable, the latest juggernaut from Tony Scott, involves an unmanned, out of control freight train barreling through the western Pennsylvania countryside carrying some highly toxic chemicals. The only men with a chance of bringing the train to a halt are “Hot Headed Rookie” Will Colson (Chris Pine, aka James T. Kirk 2.0) and “Grizzled Veteran” Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington, who’s gotten quite comfortable playing the same sort of role in several Tony Scott films as of late). Along for the ride are Rosario Dawson as the “Sharp-witted, Take No BS Dispatcher” who talks Will and Frank through their mission, and the sorely underutilized character actor Kevin Corrigan as the “Egghead from the Home Office” who proves himself by coming through with some sage advice when needed.
The film operates somewhere in between your standard high speed action movie and a disaster film right out of Irwin Allen’s wheelhouse. Where it excels is in its relentlessness. The movie opens with no more than a few a minutes of cursory back story before the train is loose and the chase is on. Scott is an expert at keeping things fast and furious while never losing track of spatial relationships. This is a skill lost on many current directors (Michael Bay, I’m looking in your general direction). They hope to generate excitement by piling on quick and jarring edits from one action to the next. But what they ultimately do is lose the thread that ties the actions together. And when that’s gone there’s no fluidity, no sense of cause and effect. You spend your time trying to make sense of the action instead of getting engulfed in it.
And there were moments in Unstoppable where I found myself completely caught up in its momentum despite my own best judgment. I could care less about Will’s estranged wife or Frank’s daughters (nice product placement for Hooters, BTW). I could also care less about how closely it adheres to the “true story” it is supposedly based on-- does the phrase “Based on a True Story” really help sell these movies? Reagardless, I was still able to lose myself in this slight but expertly filmed little action picture.