By Caesar Martini
I went into this movie half-thinking, “Why am I going into this movie again?” The answer is because my friend wanted to see it. I wasn’t particularly interested, as I had just seen Tony Scott direct Denzel Washington in a movie heavily involving trains last year (The Taking of Pelham 123). In fact, I’ve seen Scott direct Washington in five movies now. It’s as if he can’t direct anyone else in a lead role. Or maybe he looked at how his brother, Ridley Scott, has directed Russell Crowe in five movies and said, “Hey I want one too! Only, you know… black.” Perhaps the Scotts are prone to man-crushes on talented actors. Anyway, groundlessly speculated director-actor homoeroticism aside, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Unstoppable.
This movie, based on a true story, involves an unmanned train carrying thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals and combustible fuel that rampages down the tracks in the bucolic setting of rural Pennsylvania. As you might guess by the title, the train is big and fast and cannot be stopped, which you may think is only a big deal to people who like to take naps on train tracks, but wait – when the train heads into the town of Stanton, the rail line becomes elevated and takes a very tight curve, helpfully located amidst an oil refinery. The speeding train will no doubt derail and explode in the middle of a densely populated area.
As the railway and police authorities struggle to devise a way to stop something that is essentially a 70 mph (112 kph) building on wheels, two railway employees take actions of their own. A veteran engineer and newbie conductor (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine respectively, who both turn in good performances) race after the runaway in their own train in hopes of stopping… the unstoppable. Dun dun DUNNNN!
Unstoppable did a great job of taking a relatively simple situation and making it very tense and engaging. I was totally enthralled by this film, partially because of the acting and directing and all the usual enthralling stuff, but also because of the authenticity of the subject matter. Keep in mind I know as much about trains as I do about brain surgery, but it certainly seemed authentic to me. Pine and Washington play well fleshed-out characters (Rosario Dawson also does a good job as Connie, a manager trying to co-ordinate operations from the rail yard) that come across as normal train employees and not superheroes, giving a feel of real danger to the presentation, so that when one of the characters does something daring, the moment really feels daring, despite that action being something that would be too boring to include in the ‘tense’ scenes of an action movie.
So how close to true events is this movie? Well, there was a 47 car runaway train in 2001 in Toledo, Ohio, and two of those cars were carrying molten phenol, which is very hazardous. The train became a runaway in roughly the same way as in the movie and careened down Ohio rail lines for 66 miles. However, the real train never reached speeds above 50 mph, and though there is a ‘Stanton curve’ of sorts in Ohio, I’m not sure if the Toledo train came anywhere close to it, and it certainly isn’t built above a highly explosive oil refinery. The more dramatic attempts to halt the train in Unstoppable were never attempted in real life and the characters Pine and Washington play are pretty much entirely fabricated.
But you know what? That’s okay. The story was well written and believable, the acting was engrossing, the tension was gripping, what more can you ask for? Unstoppable isn’t only the best movie I’ve seen involving Tony Scott, Denzel Washington, and trains, but I think it’s the best movie I’ve seen about trains, period (sorry, Under Siege 2).