With a series of trail-blazing performances playing civil rights legends such as Steve Biko, Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Denzel Washington became the most significant black actor in Hollywood history. But eight years after winning his second Oscar—and his first for a lead role, as a corrupt cop in Training Day—he seems stuck in Groundhog Day, making the same movie over and over. Last summer, in Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Washington played a veteran employee who tries to avert catastrophe as a hijacked subway train races out of control. Now he’s in another Tony Scott thriller, Unstoppable—playing a veteran employee who tries to avert catastrophe as an unmanned freight train races out of control.
In interviews, Scott (who has cast Washington in five films) sounds a tad defensive about making two train movies in a row, and points out the differences: Unstoppable has no real bad guys, just a careless yard worker and a venal railway boss. The villain is the train itself, which Scott calls “the Beast” and compares to the shark in Jaws. So he’s made a monster movie about the largest species on wheels: Moby Dick in a full-metal jacket. Or, to quote the yard master played by Rosario Dawson, “It’s not a train, it’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.” Whatever it is, the Beast is a classic American she-devil, and you know some guy will inevitably yell, “We’re going to run this bitch down.”
Unstoppable claims to be “inspired by actual events,” although there’s no mention of those events in the production notes, and a studio rep could find no trace of them when asked. The film seems more obviously inspired by actual train movies. Unlike Pelham 1 2 3, it’s not a remake, but it does steal plot points from Runaway Train (1985), starring Jon Voight—another manic thriller about an unmanned locomotive charging toward a strip of track that can’t handle the speed. The debt is acknowledged with at least one homage: Frank Barnes is the engineer played by Washington, Frank Barstow is the dispatcher in Runaway Train.
Train movies tend to be in the business of romancing the past, not unlike westerns (which can feature trains). From its inception, cinema has had a crush on trains, ever since 1896, when the Lumière brothers made an audience panic with a shot of a locomotive steaming toward them. In period epics from Doctor Zhivago to Canada’s own The Grey Fox, trains carve destiny into landscape. Like film, the railway is an industrial medium, brutally linear. Celluloid frames reeling through sprockets are akin to measures of track rolling under steel wheels. And in a digital age, both feel grandly old-fashioned.
So in a blockbuster culture of computer-generated effects, Scott takes understandable pride in directing an action movie built on physical spectacle, not digital wizardry. The movie’s star is a grinding, shrieking behemoth that’s photographed with gritty realism and epic sound design. Momentum incarnate.
The human drama has less force. It unfolds as a contrived rivalry between Frank, a stubborn engineer about to be laid off, and Will, a rookie conductor resented by the old-timers—portrayed by Chris Pine, Star Trek’s new Captain Kirk. It’s as if Denzel, recast as the avuncular sage, is showing the new space cowboy who’s boss. He also gets to perform the movie’s most spectacular stunt.
Both actors are prisoners of a dumb plot. Defying company orders, Frank decides to chase down the runaway train as it streaks through Pennsylvania, loaded with toxic cargo. Between action scenes, he and Will bond over backstories about Will’s train wreck of a marriage and Frank’s estrangement from his two daughters, who work at Hooters. Meanwhile, news helicopters constantly buzz the train. (It’s a 20th Century Fox picture, and Fox News tracks the story in what amounts to a marathon product placement.)
With Unstoppable, you could say Washington is still on track, but it’s shunting back and forth along one lazy-assed siding. The result is a train buff’s dream that will make film buffs groan.