Top Train

A review of Unstoppable, Directed by Tony Scott

By Paul D. Miller

Tony Scott is famous for having made Top Gun (1986), one of the definitive action movies of the 1980s and coolest expressions of American nationalism on film, and for being the brother of Ridley Scott.  Sadly, Tony was in the headlines this summer because he committed suicide.  His final film, it turned out, was Unstoppable (2010).

Unstoppable Poster

Tony Scott’s filmography does not boast the same monuments of modern cinema as his brother’s (which features Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, and Prometheus, among others).  Days of Thunder (1990) was justly mocked as “Top Gun on wheels,” a transparent attempt to exploit the success of his blockbuster by transporting it to the racetrack.  I only know Enemy of the State (1998) because I once sat through an informational video by the National Security Agency (the real one) which replayed a portion of that movie and then drily reported “The NSA does not undertake military operations against American citizens.”  His best movie after Top Gun was Crimson Tide (1995), which managed to be more than Top Gun on a submarine.  His movies do not score well on, they do not get nominated for prestigious awards, and they do not appear on lists of the greatest movies ever made.  (Okay, okay.  Top Gun won an Oscar.  For Best Original Song.)

So I had low expectations for Unstoppable.  I was bracing for Top Gun on rails.  Yes, the movies is about…trains.  Big, fast, loud trains.  I wondered how you could stage a dogfight on trains.  I mean, they only go in one direction.  Was it going to be one long game of train chicken?  Lots of head-on train collisions?  And how was he going to get an evil train—probably fromIran orNorth Korea—onto American rails for the ultimate showdown?  Do they even roll on the same track gauge?  Don’t get me wrong, I like watching a train wreck as much as the next guy.  But a movie that was literally a train wreck would be, well… you get the idea.

Happily, Unstoppable is not Top Gun on rails.  It is Apollo 13 on rails.  It is the story (very loosely based on a true story, apparently), of a team of people working to stop a runaway train that is barreling towards a sharp turn in a heavily populated area—carrying toxic cargo, naturally.  If the train hits the turn, it will derail, explode, and kill lots of people.  Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, it is primarily a story of a bunch of people overcoming conflict to solve a complicated technical problem with ingenuity and teamwork.  There is no villain (except an obligatory corporate boss who is Capitalist Greed personified).  There are no train dog fights.  There is no beach volleyball.  And there is no nationalistic chest-thumping (I was actually hoping for a little of the latter).

Such a story depends for everything on its characters, the acting, and the script.  Ron Howard had Tom Hanks and Ed Harris and Gary Sinise acting off an Oscar-nominated Screenplay for Apollo 13.  Unstoppable can’t quite measure up, but it has the not insignificant talents of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine with a believable script by someone who clearly did research on how modern rail yards really work.  Denzel is excellent as a crusty old rail veteran near retirement trying to stay involved in his daughters’ lives.  Pine proved he can strut like an alpha male by taking the mantle of Captain James T. Kirk (the Maverick of Star Fleet) in the 2009 Star Trek reboot.  Here, his character is more surly, more down-to-earth, more everyday, and more relatable.  He is trying to win back his wife’s trust and find a job he can do well and take pride in.

There isn’t much profound material with which to give a theological reading of a movie like Unstoppable.  Sometimes stuff happens, bad stuff that isn’t the fault of someone’s malice (the runaway train happens because of one engineer’s laziness coupled with a technical problem).  When bad stuff happens, you have to work hard to fix it or get over it.  Teamwork is good.  Overcoming conflict is good.  Working with others to solve problems is usually necessary. Lone heroes are rare.

I also appreciated that Denzel’s character takes pride in his work.  He does things by the book because that’s the way to get the job done and stay safe.  He can tell by sight how many cars are attached to an engine.  He knows trains so well he knows the company’s efforts to derail the runaway won’t work.  And then he goes after the runaway himself because he knows it’s the right thing to do and no other plan will work.  “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might,” said Solomon (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

Unstoppable is a fun film.  Through no fault of its own, it is loud and bombastic and full of quick cuts, probably to mask the fact that it is 98 minutes of train footage (Scott manages to get in one good train wreck, a helicopter, and, ludicrously, a firing squad).  But, against all expectation, the movie is reasonably intelligent, watchable, and (whisper it) wholesome.  Not bad for a finale.

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