Runaway locomotives have a long and noble history in movies, and I’ve been a fan at least since the TV movie Runaway! back in 1973. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the premise in films ranging from Silver Streak to Speed to Andrey Konchalovsky’s bizarre 1985 thriller titled, simply, Runaway Train.
Along with being lost in the wilderness, or finding yourself untrained as a pilot at the stick of an airplane, or getting yourself back to earth in a damaged spaceship after an abortive moonshot, runaway trains are in that class of adventure-story perils that are blessedly apolitical, or, at least, only a little bit political. They’re much closer to allegorical. All of us, it could be argued, are always figuratively either riding on a runaway train or in one’s path. Or both. Or several of each. Human greed or arrogance may be part of what the hero has to struggle against, but the true enemy from which the drama derives is simply Momentum.
A little belabored? Sorry, but I just find the runaway train motif (which, after all, goes back in pop culture at least as far as “The Ballad of Casey Jones” and “The Wreck of the Old 97”) really compelling. So you can imagine my childish glee over the humdinger that opened this past weekend, marvelously titled Unstoppable, and dimly based, like “Casey Jones” and “Old 97,” on a true incident, in this case from Ohio in 2001.
A bit of carelessness by a rail-yard worker sends an enormous train loaded with hazardous chemicals hurtling south across the central Pennsylvania countryside toward a densely populated area. Meanwhile, veteran engineer Denzel Washington and still-wet-behind-the-ears conductor Chris Pine are ambling northward up the same tracks. The two men met just that morning, and aren’t getting along smoothly. Both have troubled backstories, although the movie wisely doesn’t explain them until near the end. When they realize that only they can stop a major catastrophe, and that they can do so only by insane risk, they bond fast.
To what extent the film is technically accurate, I certainly can’t say. I found myself wondering if even the most obtrusive of broadcast helicopters would fly so low over a speeding train, and if the authorities would allow mobs of bystanders and media to stand just yards from the track to watch the beast go thundering by. But as an exercise in corny, larger-than-life folklore, Unstoppable is pretty close to perfect.
It’s understandable if it gives you pause to learn that Tony Scott directed Unstoppable. While he’s made some fun movies (True Romance, notably) his touch with action can be highly off-putting. His hyperedited car chases and shootouts can dissolve into Bruckheimer-ish incoherence.
But he was the right man for this job. The action is quite literally on the straight and narrow; we’re never in doubt as to where everyone is, so Scott’s swooping, oscillating camera adds dynamism rather the taking away clarity. With the help of rumbling music by Harry Gregson-Williams, Scott gives the trains ponderousness and menacing character, almost like Japanese monsters. Plus, he isn’t embarrassed by whole-hog, grand-scale sentimentality, so stuff like the bonding between Pine and the relaxed Washington, or the adolescent-male fantasy of winning back your woman’s affections through feats of heroic derring-do, aren’t handled ironically.
The two leads manage their archetypical relationship with warmth; it’s not hard to picture John Wayne and Ricky Nelson in the roles fifty years ago. It was also nice (if maybe a little disingenuous at the corporate level) to see a big-studio movie that was pro-union and comfortable with the working class. Mark Bomback’s dialogue is pretty feverish, but it became, for me, unintentionally funny only once, when Washington, seeing Pine reach between the two trains to attempt to couple them, offers this advice: “Be careful.”