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?
Thirty-five years after the pulse-pounding thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was made this sleek faster-paced remake not only improves on a good thing it showcases a much different New York than its pre-9/11 predecessor. Like the 1974 version the story revolves around the takeover of the lead car of a subway train by armed hoods headed by their crafty mastermind Ryder. They kill a cop take 18 people hostage and give authorities just one hour to deliver $10 million. (Inflation alert: In the first version it was a paltry million.) It’s up to train dispatcher Walter Garber to negotiate with Ryder in a cat-and-mouse game where innocent lives are used as bait. As the film progresses darker sides of both principals are revealed and become key parts of this ever-evolving time bomb of a movie.
WHO’S IN IT?
In a wildly different bit of casting The Taking of Pelham 123 stars Denzel Washington in the train dispatcher role played by Walter Matthau in the original giving it more gravity and making it less sardonic than Matthau’s lighter take. For much of the movie it’s really a phone connection that brings Washington together with his nemesis Ryder played to the evil explosive hilt by John Travolta. Travolta’s bad guys (think Face/Off Pulp Fiction) are always complex and intriguing and Ryder is no exception proving to be someone much different than we are originally led to believe. This is the actor’s best outing in some time and his “face-offs” with Washington give both stars grade-A acting opportunities. They deliver — and then some. Almost stealing the film is the original Tony Soprano himself James Gandolfini who plays a slippery NYC Mayor trying to keep the incident from spiraling out of control. Also worthy of praise is John Turturro who’s very fine as a professional hostage negotiator who finds the tools of his trade don’t work very well in this situation.
Departing from the original film which took its own sweet time and merged sly humor with suspense Pelham 123 director Tony Scott puts his signature stamp on this version even before the opening credits are done establishing a lightning fast pace and tense tone of high-stakes drama from the outset. Moments of comic relief are kept to a minimum. Despite the high-tech approach Scott keeps this Pelham from careening off the tracks by emphasizing Oscar winner Brian Helgeland’s (L.A. Confidential) smart repartee between the leads and old fashioned movie-making skills designed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The riveting storyline is credible and believable at all times.
Scott moves things along so quickly you wish there was time for more character development. This applies particularly to Ryder whose reasons for turning bad aren’t so obviously black-and-white and certainly fit the times.
The first direct confrontation between Washington and Travolta is pure gold as the two circle each other and try to spray their territory.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Both. See the new version in a theater and then go home and watch the DVD of the original. Or vice versa. Both are great examples of genre moviemaking at its best.