Unstoppable Review

Unstoppable Movie Review

Click here to read my original Unstoppable review from 2010.


Unstoppable is the last film from director Tony Scott, and it’s unquestionably one of his very best. In a time now when all action movies seem to be required to run two and a half hours or so, this is the ultimate example of economical filmmaking, flying in and out at 100 minutes and 100 miles per hour. Nothing is wasted, and everything makes sense. I’ve watched this film three times in the last few months – the first of those rewatches was what ultimately inspired this entire Tony Scott marathon – and it gripped me every time.

Denzel Washington is back in the saddle with Scott again. This time, he’s playing Frank Barnes, a veteran train conductor who’s being layed off, like many of his other veteran co-workers, in favor of younger guys who don’t know as much but are also quite a bit cheaper. He’s asked to show the ropes to Will Colson (Chris Pine), who doesn’t want to be there and thinks Frank’s old-school-ness is for show.

A routine day becomes anything but when an unmanned half-mile long train carrying hazardous chemicals starts picking up speed on their track. Their dispatcher, Connie (Rosario Dawson), warns them to get out of harm’s way as quickly as possible, and they’re able to by the skin of their teeth, but when Frank becomes aware that management’s plan is to derail the train in a small town, he hatches a counter. He’ll put his train in reverse, hitch up with the runaway, and try to slow it down or stop it.

I’ve talked over the course of this filmography about Scott’s uncanny ability to create a great set piece, and the cool thing about Unstoppable is that the entire film is a set piece with smaller, more contained set pieces within it. There’s the initial attempt by Frank and Will at eluding the runaway train (known as 777), the first attempt to stop it with a helicopter trying to drop a man on top of the train, the chase to catch up, and several final stabs at getting it to slow down before hitting a tight curve above a well-populated town.

Each one is tenser than the last because the stakes keep piling up. Connie warns management (in the form of Kevin Dunn’s Oscar Galvin) that they can derail the train early on in this ordeal with minimal damage, but he opts for the riskier plan to stop it in its tracks, which proves unsuccessful and deadly, in order to save money. From there, the train passes through town after town that’s more populated than the last. Every minute that passes means more potential deaths if Frank and Will can’t succeed – something that’s presented as a big if. They frequently speak to each other like a dying man might to a priest.

For the third film in a row and fifth overall with Scott, Washington delivers the goods. I might even like his performance as Frank more than any other in a Scott film. He gets to shout lots of train lingo, which I enjoyed. “Let go of the independent,” is something I’ll never let go of, but what’s great about this performance and most of his others is that he isn’t trying to pretend to be anything other than what he is. Frank doesn’t have a tragic or even complex personal history. He’s just a guy. He’s trying to do his job well. He has some faults, but none is massive.

Will gets the backstory, and it’s enough to make his redemption arc hit home. Pine is pretty good in the film, but I was more impressed by Rosario Dawson, who has less to do overall but really owns her space and time in the film in a way you wouldn’t expect. Dunn is a fun foil, and Lew Temple steals every scene he’s in as Ned, a welder who plays an integral part in the film’s resolution and carries himself with a very unique style and confidence.

Sadly, this is the last Tony Scott film. He passed away tragically in 2012 at the age of 68, and he left behind a void that no filmmaker has filled since – a place where action films and thrillers are star-driven, economical, and stylish. And while I still get sad from time to time that I won’t be able to sit in a darkened theater and let images and sounds like those in Unstoppable and other films wash over me, I’m grateful for the time and space wherein I could watch all of these films again and write about them. I’ll be back next week with a ranking of all of Tony Scott’s films. Until then, give Unstoppable or some other Tony Scott film a watch. If you didn’t previously consider him among the best filmmakers of his age, you might after falling into his work like I did.

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