Sunday, November 14, 2010
Action Weekend, Part II - Unstoppable
I rather like the action movies of Tony Scott. True Romance (1993), my favorite Tony Scott, is more than an action movie, but it ends with his signature bloodbath shootout. Enemy of the State (1998) ends with a similar shootout, and it begins with a thrilling pursuit of a hapless eyewitness of Federal skullduggery by government hitmen using high-tech surveillance. Man on Fire (2004) features a memorable Denzel Washington performance and an intense shootout when kidnappers abscond with Dakota Fanning. I also like the brash boldness of the scene in which Washington faces off a Mexican official and his carloads of body guards with a rocket launcher. Way back when, Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) included a hilarious demolition-derby vehicular chase, and The Fan (1996) blended gripping suspense with a classic De Niro psycho portrayal.
More recently Tony Scott delivered decent thrills in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009). He allowed Denzel Washington time to stretch his acting muscles on a quirky character who is not a cop, and he delivers some tense moments, but too much fooling around with shaky camera shots, jump cuts, and multiple 360 spins around characters cause too much distraction.
In Unstoppable Scott puts the restraints on the flashy affectations, and he even takes time for a contemplative shot of the sun rising into the clouds over a railway yard, perhaps a tribute to the working class heroes featured in this film, men who risk their lives on the job but also suffer lay-offs and forced retirement with half pay. That tribute, however, does not extend to the clotpoll whose negligence starts the ball rolling and sends Engine Triple-7 down the line without an engineer.
Without much ado, Scott allows the action to be truly unstoppable, and he pumps up the tension by raising the stakes to the limit. Not only is Engine Triple-7 pulling a long train, its air brakes are disconnected, and it’s traveling at 70 miles per hour. In addition, some of the freight cars are filled with highly combustible chemicals! Not only that but the train will be passing through little towns that could be obliterated by a toxic spill! On top of that, the train is heading for a notoriously sharp curve, too sharp of a curve to take at 70 mph! Oh, and the curve happens to be right next to a bunch of fuel storage tanks! Oh, and that’s right in the middle of a big town! Phew! We’re in trouble!
A U.S. Marine dangling from a helicopter can’t stop the speeding red demon. An engine backing into the front of Triple-7 can’t slow the monster down. So it devolves to experienced engineer Frank (Denzel Washington) and fledgling conductor Chris (Chris Pine) to pursue the train, “grab it by the tail,” and slow the mother down!
As the action gets started right off the bat, any character development of Frank and Chris happens on the rails. Frank is a widower with two daughters financing college by working at Hooters, much to Daddy’s angst. Chris has been slapped with a restraining order as a result of a misunderstanding and is trying to make peace with his young wife. Frank gives fatherly advice, and Chris begins to see that Frank knows what he’s talking about. After all, Frank can calculate the length of a train by the number of cars, and he knows when it will fit a siding and when it will not.
Meanwhile, Tony Scott heightens the suspense with the lightning-fast motion of speeding trains, cars racing in pursuit, and helicopters crisscrossing overhead. As in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Tony Scott loves to shoot packs of wailing police cars, so after one such pack escorts a railway welder to the end of the line, the police cars follow, sirens wailing, even when it’s no longer necessary and really distracting to the guys trying to stop the train!
But the action is heart-pounding. Big bad Engine Triple-7 becomes an inexorable juggernaut reminiscent of the driverless truck in Spielberg’s The Duel, as it flicks a horse trailer out of its way like an insect and blows a freight car to flinders. Meanwhile, the crisis is turned into a sensational news event, complete with color-coded animated simulations of what will happen if Triple-7 hits that notorious curve at 70 mph, but too many abrupt cuts to TV broadcast views of the action sometimes deflate the suspense by relying on long shots when close shots would be more visceral.
Despite these interruptions and the cut to scenes in which a train company mogul calculates the losses over golf and stubbornly ignores Frank’s experienced advice, the inexorability of this runaway train builds suspense that’s hard to dilute. I could have done without cuts to the nail-biting or cheering of the fellow railway workers, wife, and daughters watching it all on television as the newscaster narrates the action like a boxing match, “He’s down! No, he’s up! No, he’s down again.” This is where Scott should have maintained the close-up action, but Washington and Pine establish believable presence and display a rugged charm and sense of humor that keep our attention on them and put us on the edge of our seats when they do everything they can to save the day.