Review: Unstoppable

The Thinker by Rodin

We live in a complex age where brains wins over brawn and many big problems require teams of experts to fix. That is why we crave an occasional special type of action-adventure movie. It should not require the Mission Impossible crew, but give an opportunity for some ordinary hardhat Joes (and Janes) to solve a critical problem through gumption, great risk and practical knowledge. Problems like, say, stopping a coaster (a runaway train) loaded with deadly chemicals that is careening down the railroads of central Pennsylvania.

The movie Unstoppable is based on the true story of the CSX-8888 train that in 2001 ran for two hours by itself across Ohio. Central Ohio, where this real coaster ran, is pretty flat. Not so with central Pennsylvania, which makes for a much more suspenseful location for a disaster movie, particularly when this high-speed locomotive will have to travel through a city with an elevated track and a tight curve. The producers of this movie of course invent other ways to heighten suspense: putting schoolchildren on a train on a collision course with the train and, of course, lots and lots of scenes of squealing and flaming brakes. There is also an omnipresent news helicopter flying insanely close to the train. Most importantly, ordinary blue-collar railroad workers are willing to try all sorts of risky things to stop the train.

Since it is an action adventure movie, it should have some good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are at corporate busy putting their company’s bottom line first. The good guys are train engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine), and the kick-ass yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), all of who will risk life, limb and their job to do what is right. That’s what I love about blue collar types. They tend to be relentlessly mission focused, even (as in the case of Frank) with a forced early retirement looming. Sometimes, like with Will, their personal lives are in great upheaval during momentous events; he is estranged from his wife and kids. Despite these pressures and a likely huge train disaster that odds on will kill them, they do what they feel they must do. It’s like a reflex.

Unstoppable also features a good federal employee. This may be news to Republicans, but there are plenty of us out there. Inspector Werner (Kevin Corrigan) of the Federal Railroad Administration happens to be in the dispatch station when the crisis occurs and provides crucial guidance to help solve the problem. He also provides specific guidance on the lethality of molten phenol, which the locomotive is pulling.

I last saw Chris Pine in a movie as a young James T. Kirk. Here he plays an angst-filled young train conductor with a day old beard, whose family name may be the sole reason for his fast rise in the railroad business. Conducting sure does not seem to be Will’s skill. Even though his marital issues are distracting him, Will seems out of his league, and knows it. It’s probably good that he is partnered with a seasoned engineer like Frank. Perhaps because things are going badly at home, it is easier for him to attempt some of the many risky scenarios for stopping Train 777.

The railroad tries a number of strategies to stop Train 777 that predictably fail and remain tone deaf to suggestions of their employees down on the tracks. It takes the two hardhats Frank and Will, a spunky yardmaster not afraid to tell the Vice President of operations how she really feels, along with Ned the welder (Lew Temple) in a very fast pickup to stop the unstoppable train. And, of course, they will succeed. You sense that going in, especially if you remember the news reports of the CSX-8888 incident.

The movie is reasonably heart stopping anyhow. The movie does a good job of pulling you into the railroad business, if only for a little while. The Appalachian towns of Central Pennsylvania look dilapidated, but there you can find the mythical “real America”, if your definition of real includes a preponderance of manly, gritty, often overweight blue-collar types in jeans, hardhats and work boots. The movie includes some impressive and well-staged train collisions that might alone be worth the price of admittance.

If you start watching Unstoppable, you probably won’t be able to stop watching it, which is a sign of an engaging but not spectacular movie.

3.2 out of four-stars.

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