“Luck has no business in the rail yard,” and with that, the scene for Unstoppable is set. Gaudy action has its place, but the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are far behind audiences. Eliciting the same explosive, tantalising action that they could once muster up without much thought is a tough task to take on. Near impossible. Considering the shifting scope of film, it is hard to think of a place Unstoppable could suitably adapt to. Action has changed, but this Denzel Washington-led feature decides to ignore the changing tides of the genre and burrows deep into what lit the flames of ingenuity all those years ago. There is no climate for this sort of entertainment, and it is a damned shame that director Tony Scott was one of the few keeping this genre mainstream.
In hindsight, his efforts with this, Man on Fire and even Déjà Vu were valuable pieces of the post-action boom. Scott has his tropes and sticks to his guns. Denzel Washington, quick cuts and crash zooms are plentiful here. While there is much movement displayed on the screen, there is no need for this many changes of camera angle, other than to elicit the faux representation of action-packed sequences. How exhilarating can a train leaving the station be? That is up to how willing you are to lean into Scott’s charm behind the camera. Washington is present for much of it, at least. He and Chris Pine have a surprising level of chemistry, and their friendship cuts through the weaker moments. Most of those lesser moments include T.J. Miller, but at least Scott’s camerawork is frenetic enough to avoid lingering on Miller for too long.
As that train trundles on towards terrified civilization, there is a palpable terror to seeing it all. Tension is kindled tremendously well here, so much so that I now fear getting the train to my local cinema. It is a one-way track, but who knows when an unmanned train with no brakes is going to barrel toward me? Prepare for the impossible, that’s what they say. Unstoppable and much of Scott’s work is all about that. These are ordinary people, they usually are, in over their heads as they go off to save a city from complete carnage. Should they succeed, their efforts are scarcely rewarded, if they don’t, they would surely be chastised and mocked for their incompetency. That is the tragic brilliance Scott presents. Good people and good deeds go unchecked and unpraised.
Like him or loathe him, Scott’s work was indeed unstoppable. He was a gift that kept on giving. Not every feature was a home run, but his craftsmanship and ability to engage with an audience that had been long forgotten was incredible. When your villain is a runaway train, it is bound to crash through some neighbourhoods. Quite literally, in this instance. Taking away the humanity from a villain and just having a primitive beast or bit of technology running rampant means the real thrills come from the explosive actions and the inaction of shady characters. Unstoppable adapts that well, and its reliance on a vaguely true story packs a surprisingly engaging punch.