Friday, December 17, 2010


As I've yet to track down a copy of Déjà Vu on Blu-Ray and would prefer to stick solely to that film's considerable merits, I figure I might as well use Unstoppable as an excuse to make a somewhat shameful cinephile confession: I adore Tony Scott. Not his early, more commercially friendly material, mind you, but the increasing chaos of his second-stage work. His work in the new millennium has placed him in the nebulous, bizarre realm between the gauche incoherence of Michael Bay and the sensualist poetry of Wong Kar-wai. Yes, I said it.

Yet where Bay contents himself to roll around in incompetence, stringing together half-narratives out of weightless ultimatums (there's an asteroid! No more questions!), rapid edits designed to mask the formlessness of his shots and a sickening gauze slopped over the whole proceedings -- to say nothing of his cocktail of racial stereotypes and light misogyny -- Scott's films are more tactile and resonant. Though his narratives of late have been just as abstract as Bay's, Scott infuses his films with a focus on emotion, his own lack of clearly defined structure revealing an elliptical plotting than a futile attempt to outpace his inanity.

Unstoppable, then, may be the film to remind people who fell off the Scott wagon when it hit an elevated rail curve in excess of 75 mph. Befitting a movie about a runaway train, Unstoppable is as linear as the path to which that train is bound. Without the narrative-bending worry of time travel to worry about, Scott can devote his full energies and his host of in-camera effects to jazzing up the CSX 8888 incident that occurred in northwestern Ohio in May 2001. But the changes he makes to further dramatize the story bring out some of his pet topics in recent years.

Scott turns the pre-9/11 incident into a post-9/11 one, updating the event to coincide with our altered perspective. And by changing the setting from Ohio to the even more blatantly post-industrial area of southern Pennsylvania, the director creates a blend of the natural and the manmade, the rural areas through which rails run evoking the nation's past and a more prosperous and adventurous time before running into urban decay, the endpoint of America's Manifest Destiny and the rush to industrialize.

When Will Colson (Chris Pine, looking fresh-faced even with his considerable stubble) arrives at his first day on the rails, he finds older workers who've seen that decay get worse over the years. A table of old-timers grumbles over Will's last name, linking him to the union bosses that surely gave this newbie his job through nepotism. Even without that foot in the door, though, Will and other young men likely would have taken their jobs anyway. It's cheaper to start a bunch of rookie labor at entry salary and let them go before benefits accrue than to keep funding the pensions and modestly larger checks of the vets.

Will partners with Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), who eyes the young man with the same suspicion his friends cast upon the newcomer. Will, the conductor, may be in charge of the freight train they're running that day, but Frank won't let the slightest error go without comment. A Saturday Night Live sketch spoofed the trailer for the film, playing up the overt hints of bromance and grudging-mutual-respect buddy comedy, and Unstoppable certainly contains that element. After hounding Will's ass all morning, the two bond over familial troubles, Frank with his daughters who work at Hooters and care little for their father's admittedly half-hearted attempts to win them over, Will with his estranged wife.

However, Scott's interest in macho standoffs elevates their chatter over mere pablum. Though his explorations of masculinity have never risen above a sub-Michael Mann level, Scott has a keen eye for surveying how men puff out their chests in front of each other; after all, the men in his films always toughen up and preen themselves when dealing with other men far more than they do to woo a woman. Denzel, with his shaved head removing any gray and maintaining the lingering youth of his bright face, teases, almost flirts, with Pine, that adorable young upstart with the most striking pair of baby blues to come along since Alexis Bledel. Part of the reason I never saw Scott's remake of The Talking of Pelham 123 is that the movie that played in my head -- of Scott using Travolta's butch posturing as a means of messing with that latent homosexuality so many see in the actor -- would likely be more revealing than the actual movie, and Unstoppable adds an age component to the mix, creating a faint paternal bond in addition to the usual bromance.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the freight district, the world's laziest train engineer (Ethan Suplee) has the simple task of moving a massive train loaded with enough cars to make it the length, yes, of the Chrysler Building from one area of the storage yard to another. As he only has to move the thing a bit, Dewey does not bother to tie the air brakes on the train, and when he notices a switch up ahead hasn't been activated, he jumps out of the cab to throw it himself. When he moves to get back on, the throttle slips to full speed and he cannot catch up. So now there's a giant train with no brakes barreling down the rails against incoming traffic. Oh, and did I mention that it's loaded with highly toxic and combustible chemicals?

Scott's in-your-face direction works marvelously here, distracting us from the inevitability of the runaway train coming into contact the other trains we see along the way -- the protagonists', a passenger engine carrying school children ironically there to learn about rail safety. He warps the dimensions, rarely giving us a full look at the locomotive and its cargo to emphasize how massive it is. The screech of metal on metal builds in the sound mix, overwhelming the ears and sounding like the beastly howl of a giant monster. When Frank and Will decide to unhitch their cargo and chase after the train in reverse to hook up to its rear and slow the thing down, Scott avoids the dramatic pitfalls that might come with two objects following the exact same path under constant surveillance by always stressing the pain in the men as they struggle to catch up to the speeding bomb. When they hit top speed and still cannot close in, the mounting sense of panic extends to the audience.

Impressively, Scott uses a bait-and-switch to lure the audience into a much tawdrier brand of suspense picture before moving into something much more complex. The trailers advertised the chemical train on a collision course with the one carrying children, but that particular tragedy is averted early on, shifting the focus away from a cheap, exploitative plot to one that calls more attention to the sociopolitical implications of the story. Back at the station, Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), the yardmaster, tries to coordinate efforts but is stymied every step of the way by the corporate higher-ups who prove willing to sacrifice lives before profits. While others calculate the human cost of the train derailing on the sharp elevated curve in Stanton that couldn't possibly handle such a massive train at such a high speed, the executives, personified by the company's vice president (Kevin Dunn), cannot even stop thinking about money when considering worst-case scenarios. Thus, the train itself becomes something of a metaphor for a, wait for it, runaway economy, set in motion by those smart enough to know how the components work but too lazy to do the job thoroughly and with integrity, then perpetuated by those who stood to make the most money off the disaster.

To be honest, though, what caught my eye was the masterful and scathing indictment of the "24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator" as Jon Stewart termed the media in his closing speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity. The use of fake telecasts as a means of communicating plot developments has become increasingly common lately, but Scott plants his tongue firmly in cheek and reveals almost the whole of the film through news. As Dunn's VP and the other executives come up with every more useless measures designed to save money and maybe stop the train too if that would help, the media spends no time trying to get to the truth of their inane actions, accepting a refusal to comment without protest and instead swarming the rail line for coverage. TV station helicopters circle around the train so rapidly and hungrily that one concludes that anyone looking to pilot a chopper for TV news should have military training in advanced flying techniques just to avoid crashing into the other five choppers in the vicinity. Snatches of trite anchor commentary crackles at the edge of the soundtrack as Scott jumps from news footage back to his own look at the action, and we hear fatuous remarks like "That was so crazy!" said with ratings-hungry glee as a man's life is lost in one of the company's abysmal schemes. They sound uncannily like the same pundits who compared night vision footage of the bombing of Baghdad to video games. (I was also particularly amused that Scott made reference to the crutch of news footage as plot device when Dunn throws up his hands in a fit and asks why they can only ever get updates on the train from the news and not their own people.)

Unstoppable may lack the formal daring of Déjà Vu, but it easily ranks among Scott's finest work, a commemoration of post-9/11, average Joe heroism wrapped in the dark comedy of its Ernest Goes to Oklahoma City feel of accidental domestic terrorism. I've wanted to see the film since it came out, but the intervening month has brought a news story that makes the commitment to saving others at the risk of death and lasting injury from toxic fumes all the more apt: I'm speaking of course of the Republican senators voting down health care for 9/11 first responders, denying desperately needed coverage for those suffering complications arising from their acts of selflessness and patriotism. Frank and Will have no reason to risk themselves, the former being edged out to circumvent full retirement benefits, the later brought on solely as cheap labor, but they do it anyway because they would not consider the alternative.

This severity is some of the smartest material to yet appear in a Scott film, but what makes him so endlessly entertaining is that he never devolves into polemics. Fundamentally, Unstoppable has fun with its narrative, taking joy in making vehicles bound to a set route unpredictable. Backup characters like Kevin Corrigan's half-officious, half-amiable safety official and Lew Temple's madman, redneck railroad welder are fantastic and, along with Dawson and Dunn, some rare examples of interesting side players in a Scott film. As for the aesthetics, the washed-out look of muted colors cannot bleach the beauty of his backgrounds, both the forests and the industrial dumps, and they seem even more vibrant when blurred outside the speeding cabs. The only garish element is the yellow safety vest Will wears, which clashes so violently that even Frank demands he take it off in the middle of danger just to avoid insult added to injury.

Scott loves his film grain, and he compounds the hazy look of the movie at the climax by placing a container of actual grain at the back of the runaway train that explodes when the two trains meet, spraying grain over the grain. It's a hilarious, boyish trick that only someone as clever and wry as Scott could pull off in popcorn entertainment, and it's as delightful as any of the more subtle moments in Unstoppable. See it. Otherwise, there will be a hole in your 2010 viewing...the size of the Chrysler Building.


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