UNSTOPPABLE. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson. Directed by Tony Scott. 98 minute. Rated M (Infrequent coarse language).

Once the adrenalin starts to kick in for the audience, the impact of this thriller is unstoppable.

Although they have been around for under two hundred years, trains exercise a frequently mesmerising fascination for so many people.  And they have provided any number of films with a wonderful atmosphere for murder mysteries like Murder on the Orient Express, for disappearances like The Lady Vanishes, for trains out of control like Runaway Train and Silver Streak.  This is the story of a train out of control – and is based on actual events from Ohio in 2001.

Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington combined for the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.  They work together this time to much better effect.  The action takes place over a couple of hours.  The plot is basic.  Slob railway workers take short cuts in security and a train with a large number of carriages, some filled with toxic, flammable materials, takes off on its own, making demands on local controllers as well as the rail corporation’s executives.  Meanwhile, a veteran and a rookie take out an engine to haul some goods carriages – and find themselves in harm’s way.  They decide to attempt a risky manoeuvre  to try to slow down the train and to try to stop it.

Nothing new, but it is always startling.

Scott wastes no time in getting the runaway train going and with realistic styles of camerawork plus a lot of footage from television crews intercut with the rail drama and the characters trying to cope, the pace is quick and constant.  It is edge of the seat stuff.

The film gets some drama from what is in the path of the train: a carriage load of school children learning about train travel, a crashed wagon with some frightened horses – and a number of towns that could be contaminated or lit by explosions and, finally, a large city where the train has to go round a curved bend at a slower rail so that it can stay on the track, a bend near a large industrial area.

Denzel Washington gives a confident, laid-back performance, a practical and wise man with 28 years’ experience, who knows what he is talking about and is game enough to test his convictions.  He is an ordinary working class hero, the backbone of America, a hero one can believe in.  With him is Chris Pine (who successfully commanded the Enterprise as the younger Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek).  Pine is a sensible young man who does make mistakes, is ticked off by Denzel but who rises to the occasion.  There are some brief aspects of the stories of the two men which offers a little more human interest.

Meanwhile back at headquarters, Rosario Dawson is trying to deal with the unexpected crisis, using common sense, trust in her workers, and not afraid to stand up to the wheeler dealing of the officials.

The film really offers a strong critique of lazy work practices and the petty human reactions that can lead to disaster.  It reminds us that there can be dire consequences of pettiness and not taking responsibilities seriously.  It is also critical of the powers that be who have one eye on the crisis and the other on the balance sheets.

This is a film which sets out to entertain by telling a story which is exciting and frightening – it could happen.  But, like popular entertainment, it also lets us leave the theatre, pleased with and proud of the men and women who do their best to save situations and take risk.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

20th Century Fox

Released January 6, 2011


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