If the railway thriller Unstoppable looks familiar it’s only because its director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington partnered just over a year ago on another railway thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. In Unstoppable the train is granted a bigger slice of the narrative pie than it received in Pelham serving not only as the film’s principal setting but also its primary villain. Stocked with a payload of dangerous chemicals Train 777 (that’s one more evil than 666!) hurtles unmanned towards a calamitous rendezvous with the helpless residents of Stanton Pennsylvania. Surely an upgrade over a hammy John Travolta no?
On whom can we depend to put a stop to this massive killing machine this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building ” in the ominous words of Rosario Dawson’s station dispatcher? Not the entry-level clods (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) whose ineptitude originally set the train on its fateful path. (In a chilling testament to the potential dangers posed by the obesity epidemic a chunky Suplee runs to catch up with the coasting train in the hopes of triggering its emergency brake before it leaves the station only to collapse in a wheezing heap unsuccessful.) Certainly not their supervisor (Kevin Dunn) a middle-management goon more concerned with impressing his corporate superiors than ensuring proper rail safety. And most definitely not the parent company’s feckless golf-playing (the nerve!) CEO whose disaster-containment strategy is dictated purely by stock price.
No sooner or later the burden of heroism must fall on the capable shoulders of our man Denzel. As Frank Barnes a resolutely competent locomotive engineer on a routine training assignment with a reluctant apprentice (Chris Pine unshaven) he emerges as the only force capable of preventing the Train of Doom from reaching its grisly destination. Of course in any train-related emergency such as the one depicted in Unstoppable a litany of things must go wrong before the task of averting disaster becomes the sole responsibility of the engineer of another train. And screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) trooper that he is takes care to cycle through every single one of them lest we question the believability of such a scenario. Because believability is so important in films like this.
Denzel’s most formidable foe in Unstoppable it turns out is his own director. As an alleged “old-school” filmmaker Tony Scott largely eschews the usage of CGI but he embraces almost every other fashionable action-movie gimmick occasionally to nauseating effect. When the camera isn’t jostling about or zooming in and out jarringly it’s wheeling at breakneck speed across a dolly track; countless circling shots of key dialogue exchanges give the impression that we’re eavesdropping on these conversations from a helicopter. No static shots are allowed and cuts are quick and relentless giving us nary a moment to catch our breath or recover our equilibrium.
These are the tactics of an insecure director one with startlingly little faith in his material or his performers. As Unstoppable nears it climax we’re invested in the action not because of the incessant play-by-play of the TV reporters who’ve converged on the scene — a ploy mandated by Scott’s frantic style which by this point has left the story teetering on incoherence — but because of our almost accidental bond with the film’s protagonists who despite the director’s best efforts have managed to make just enough of an imprint on our consciousness that we’d prefer they not perish in a fiery train wreck.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
Loosely based on a documentary about a family who encountered strange goings-on in their new home this Hollywood-ized version finds the Campbell clan moving into a Victorian-style house in upstate Connecticut only to find it was once a funeral parlor dating back to the 1920s where spiritual entities crossed over thanks to the then-owner's clairvoyant son Jonah. You might think they would have gotten the idea that all was not so charming and quaint by the fact there's also a creepy cemetery next door but with the father usually off on a drunken spree and Mom urgently needing a place to take care of her gravely ill cancer-stricken teenage son (not to mention two daughters) there wasn't much time to house-hunt. Now the past is starting to catch up with the present and the Campbell's face terrifying ghostly visitors at just about every turn.
WHO'S IN IT?
At the center of this nightmare Virginia Madsen (Sideways) is well-cast as the rock-solid mom who has to contend with a weak hubby sickly son and a new house seemingly populated by the dead! Madsen once dealt with Candyman so this haunted mansion should be a snap. As Matt her son with a rare usually fatal cancer Kyle Gallner redefines intensity spending the bulk of the movie fighting demons of every kind — including his own. Amanda Crew plays it by the numbers as daughter Wendy the type of movie character that likes exploring dark deserted rooms late at night. Martin Donovan is given the thankless role of the alcoholic father while Elias Koteas is laughable as a Reverend who tries to battle the home's devilish spirits and seems to be channeling Father Merrin from The Exorcist.
Besides Madsen? Not much. But at least this is one horror film based in some semblance of reality with the cancer plotline adding a layer of credibility not found in today's usual brand of torture porn.
In taking its inspiration from countless psychological '60s classics like The Haunting and The Innocents to the more vivid terrors of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist it only serves to point up this incarnation's inadequacies. There are a few scares but they are all produced by predictably quick editing and heightened music cues designed to give the audience a momentary rush and not much else.
The unintentionally funny sequence when the family first discovers their new dream house may not have been such a good deal after all. It's even more terrifying than a sub-prime mortgage!
It’s already a bad day for Tom (Stephen Rea) an unemployed middle-aged business executive who’s about to enter the ranks of the homeless--but things are only going to get worse when the sun goes down. Brandi (Mena Suvari) a young nurse with a penchant for partying is driving home after celebrating an expected promotion when Tom crosses the street at exactly the wrong moment. Brandi hits Tom then rushes home in abject panic--all the while incidentally Tom’s body is stuck in her windshield and he’s still alive. While Brandi frantically dithers and deliberates how to extricate herself from this situation without consequences Tom is trying to physically extricate his broken body from Brandi’s windshield. What begins as a simple if unfortunate case of hit-and-run becomes a battle of wills between Tom and Brandi--one that crackles with intensity and irony. Both Suvari and Rea give tremendous performances. Rea's downtrodden dignity is enormously empathetic. His attempts to save himself--exemplifying his renewed will to live--are agonizing to watch but also rousing in their own way as this underdog fights against some pretty steep (and bloody) odds. Interestingly enough it’s also easy to empathize with Brandi’s predicament--for a time. Hitting Tom was an accident but when she goes into self-preservation mode Brandi’s actions become more and more horrific with the consequences growing exponentially. Suvari (also an associate producer) hasn’t had a role this good since American Beauty and she makes the most of it. There’s also a nice turn by Russell Hornsby as Brandi’s drug-dealing two-timing boyfriend Rashid who gets drawn into her scheme--much to his regret. Stuart Gordon whose H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator remains one of the premier cult films of the 1980s has lost none of his savage wit or his taste for dark humor. That this film is inspired by an actual incident only enhances its impact and its stinging irony. Truth is not only stranger than fiction it’s often stronger. Beyond the violence (sometimes extreme) and satire (sometimes overt) are some subtle yet potent observations about human nature--about not taking responsibility for one’s actions about not getting involved about covering up one’s mistakes. Stuck is not a preachy film but it’s frequently a penetrating one (no pun intended).