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.
Let's give a big hand to the two newest members of the Mile High Club. Yes total strangers Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) and Emily (Amanda Peet) hook up during an otherwise quiet flight from L.A. to New York City. Heck the two don't say a word until they bump into each other at the baggage claim. "Blah blah it's ruined " Emily moans the second Oliver opens his big mouth. How sweet. How could they not be soul mates? So what if they share nothing in common aside from a mutual attraction? The bashful Oliver's an aspiring Internet entrepreneur eager to marry the perfect woman live in a beautiful house and drive the flashiest car. The outgoing Emily's an actress with less talent than Paris Hilton and a thing for lousy musicians and writers. So why do director Nigel Cole and screenwriter Colin Patrick Lynch insist on making this lousy love match? They even drag this dead-end romance from the late 1990s to today as Oliver bets Emily $50 that he will have the life he desires in just seven years. Predictably absence makes the heart grow fonder and whenever they cross paths--from a day in New York City or a night in L.A.--they fall more in love with each other. Of course there's always something preventing them from making a commitment. Yawn. By the time Oliver and Emily decide it's now or never they've grown so whiny and wearisome you won't care whether they spend the rest of their lives together or apart.
Kutcher promises to slip on his tighty whities and model again for Calvin Klein if A Lot Like Love reigns supreme at the box office. Sorry girls that won't happen. But Kutcher does flash a little flesh when he drops his drawers for Peet. Otherwise he doesn't display much of anything else in his most wretched offering since My Boss's Daughter. If ever Kutcher wanted to prove he can inject a little charisma or personality into an underwritten role A Lot Like Love offers him his greatest opportunity. But he blows it. Or maybe he's not capable of doing anything other than getting so flustered he can barely spit out his words as he does in all his witless comedies. Kutcher's Oliver Martin is as bland as his name and as dull as his line of business. This makes it tough to believe Emily--in the form of the spunky Peet--would even think twice about pursuing a relationship with this drip. Then again the relentlessly grating Emily isn't exactly a prize catch negating Peet's efforts to give A Lot Like Love a little pungency. You have to pity Peet: she so willingly participates in one farcical flop after another--from Whipped to Saving Silverman to The Whole Ten Yards--that she's dangerously close to ruining what was never really a particularly promising career.
Ever cleaned out the back of your car and found a soundtrack CD you forgot you bought? Those CDs always boast great pop songs that you never hear on the radio anymore. But no matter how many times you listen to the songs you can't remember the film that accompanied the soundtrack. That's A Lot Like Love: terrific soundtrack lousy movie. To lazily evoke a sense of time and place director Nigel Cole leans heavily on well-worn hits from the late 1990s and early 2000s by Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind. That would be all well and dandy if Cole at least injected A Lot Like Love with some comic pizzazz. For a film told over the course of seven years A Lot Like Love moves slowly awkwardly and uneventfully. Perhaps Cole left his sense of humor back in England where he directed the screwy Saving Grace and the plucky Calendar Girls. Or maybe he's more comfortable chronicling the misadventures of middle-aged women than the bed-hopping antics of self-involved twentysomethings. He gets so desperate for laughs that he makes Kutcher and Peet spit water at each other during a dinner eaten in silence. But the most grating moment sadly recalls Say Anything's sweet and touching climax: rather than blast Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes from a boom box a guitar-strumming Kutcher instead serenades Peet with an unfunny off-key rendition of Bon Jovi's "I'll be There For You." OK so maybe not every song on the soundtrack deserves another spin.
Tom Hanks stars as the charming but fiendishly eccentric Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III Ph.D.--a Southern gentleman and expert thief who masterminds a casino heist with a motley crew of goofy crooks. Setting up operations at the boarding house of the widowed Baptist-loving sassy Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall) Dorr convinces the older lady that he requires her cellar for his Renaissance-period music ensemble to practice. The band is in actuality his criminal team which plans to use the space to dig a tunnel into a riverboat casino and rob its safe. But with this oddball crew comprised of the hip-hop stylin' Gawain (Marlon Wayans) a janitor at the casino; ex-hippie and Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferer Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons); The General (Tzi Ma) a stoic chain smoking tunneling pro; and Lump (Ryan Hurst) an ex-football player whose brains are in short order problems are bound to arise. God-fearing Southern woman Mrs. Munson is initially charmed (after all they're not playing that "hippity-hoppity" music as she calls it) but once she catches wind of their scheme the dastardly characters must find a way to dispose of her. But how?
Stepping in the shoes of the great Guinness who played an almost Phantom of the Opera version of the English gallant Hanks creates an over-the-top Southerner who's part William Faulkner part Colonel Sanders. An eloquent Edgar Allen Poe-quoting dandy Hanks wears antebellum all-white and speaks with antiquated turns of phrase that are supposed to be alternately appealing and anachronistically funny. Supposed to be. Though under the direction of Joel Coen who can wring an effortless inspired verbose Kentucky character out of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? Hanks' oddities are obvious at every turn. The performance is strained--right down to his goofy laugh--and unlike Guinness we never feel Dorr's underlying evil the element that made the original character so deliciously funny. This is a darkly comic character Hanks manages to make cute. The rest of the crew fares little better with the talented Wayans resting on easy "bust a cap in yo' ass" ghetto humor and Simmons' suffering one too many unfunny times from a bout with IBS (since when did the Coens resort to bathroom humor?). Hall is the saving grace here from back-talking her charges with gusto to giving a hilarious speech about the depraved elements of "hippity-hoppity music" to mistaking Dorr's dubious title of Ph.D. as "like Elmer Fudd?" she's a terrific comic foil. Too bad the cast didn't have enough stimulating material to bounce off her.
The Coen brothers usually work expertly with caricatures carefully balancing cartoonish madcap with people we actually care about. From Nicolas Cage's brilliant Hy in Raising Arizona to Jeff Bridges's pot-smoking The Dude in The Big Lebowski to Clooney in the aforementioned O Brother they're the masters of broad. Here however they make a misstep in both casting Hanks (Billy Bob Thornton would have been more appropriate) and to a larger extent messing with a movie that didn't need messing. The original 1955 version (directed by Alexander Mackendrick and also starring Peter Sellers) is darker than the Coens' take which relies more on slapstick and lunacy. Nevertheless the picture is technically gorgeous with cinematographer Roger Deakins creating a perfectly sunny Southern town mixed with a gothic underbelly of doom and tuned to an enlivened Gospel music score. And there are funny bits for sure played out in that precise unique Coen rhythm but given their past and potential genius the Coens are certainly capable of better. The Ladykillers lacks what we've come to know them for--a killer comic instinct.
After 20 years with the LAPD Det. Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) just wants to catch the crooks finish the paperwork and retreat to his mundane life at home where he eats TV dinners and pursues his hobby of making bad pottery. Patrolman Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy) really wants to be an actor--he's only a cop because he made a lousy waiter. When Sellars bungles Preston's undercover case and media hounds catch it all on tape the irate Preston shoots up a news camera that gets in his face. Over-caffeinated network exec Chase Renzi (Rene Russo) upon seeing the damning evidence that could have killed her cameraman is captivated by Preston's complete lack of charm and convinces her superior she can save his crappy network by pairing Preston and Sellars up on a reality show. As expected Preston is reluctant--and even more so when he's forced to take the mugging Sellars as his partner. The two take impromptu acting lessons from iconic actor/director William Shatner (playing himself) and set off to attract an audience boost the ratings become celebrities and get the bad guys in a televised reality christened Showtime. Meanwhile the evil Cesar Vargas (Pedro Damian)--whom we know is evil 'cause he hides in the shadows he's flashy and well groomed and he mumbles in an unfathomable Third World/ European accent--is stockpiling guns powerful enough to knock down houses and blow the doors off a Brinks truck.
The movie offers a few good yuks--a coke-sniffing dog an unprecedented cameo by jive-rhyming lawyer Johnnie Cochran and William Shatner satirizing William Shatner (who does this better than anybody else satirizing William Shatner). Unfortunately we've seen a lot of his funniest stuff like the scene in which he demonstrates how to roll over a car hood cop-style in the previews. Rene Russo gives an effective souped-up Lethal Weapon-type performance with her hyper pushy fast-talking network exec desperate to make her name in the industry. De Niro's straight-man comedy is in his facial expressions--or lack thereof--and Murphy is…well Murphy. It's their first outing together and they play off each other like a foul-mouthed version of Abbott and Costello (guess who plays who?). We've seen De Niro play grumpy (Midnight Run) and Murphy play obnoxious (almost everything) before. But as you may suspect it's their grade-A chemistry that holds this badly stitched predictable though occasionally funny flick together--especially in regards to the jokes on Hollywood and the current bounty of reality TV.
You can smell the gags and The Odd Couple-versus-Goldfinger plot unfolding a million miles away. You just know Preston is hiding a gun inside that Big Gulp when he goes undercover to investigate a pawn shop and you know Vargas will make bad-guy errors in judgment like staging a robbery in downtown L.A. the day after he's confronted by our star cops in a populated disco. But that may lead you to wonder why the police--who are likewise not presented as being particularly bright in this movie--weren't trailing him as Vargas is the prime suspect in the gun-trafficking subplot. Some of the comedy borders on satire but isn't played up enough for you to tell if it was meant that way or not. The action scenes are so badly edited it's hard to tell who's chasing whom until the camera cuts back to Murphy's toothy grin and a cement-faced De Niro shooting out his car window. And speaking of commercial-laden reality TV the product placement in this movie is shameless--we get a full-length commercial for Apple Computers played not once but twice.