Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Getting it Right #1: Unstoppable

Unstoppable stars Denzel Washington
As Hollywood movies become more expensive to make and promote – with many films, shockingly, costing upwards of $100 million – Tinseltown continues to retreat into ‘safe’ projects, either sequels or remakes, such as Little Fockers or True Grit, or large event movies like Inception that garner buzz because of the massive hype attached to them. That doesn’t leave much room for so-called B movies, films with lesser known actors or directors or unusual subject matter, which simply aren’t being made much anymore and thus often fly under the media's radar when they're finally released. The Tony Scott thriller Unstoppable isn’t exactly a B movie (neither Scott (Top Gun, The Taking of Pelham 123) nor the film’s star, Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, American Gangster) are unknowns), but by any other measure, the film is a comparatively low budget, modest enterprise that stands out by virtue of what it isn’t: overblown, loud and empty headed. It’s also the rare Hollywood movie that does what it sets out to do very well, indeed.

The movie’s premise is deceptively simple. Due to incompetence, an unmanned freight train, laden with toxic chemicals, is out of control and heading towards populated areas. If it reaches Stanton, Pennsylvania, 750,000 people will be at mortal risk. Can the train be stopped in time and who will stop it?

That’s basically the whole story, but within that seemingly thin skein of a plot, lies a gripping, intelligent and well thought out movie that involves you in a way you don’t expect. Initially, the premise, though inspired by a true story, seems clich├ęd: a veteran engineer (Washington) and a neophyte conductor (Chris Pine) become involved in the train’s saga, guided by a sympathetic yardmaster (Rosario Dawson) while the electronic media relentlessly covers the story as it unfolds. But soon enough, Unstoppable shifts into smart gear and never lets up until its gripping, edge-of-your-seat conclusion.

The dialogue, by screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard), is tart and funny, the technical jargon is explicable and the plotting impeccable. More significantly, Scott reins in his bad habits, the annoyingly fast cutting and jerky camerawork and slows down the proceedings so the film can breathe. And, happily, the special effects never overwhelm the story. He’s really offering a primer on how to properly direct action/suspense films and it shows. You get immersed in the story without feeling the need to sit back and question what you’re seeing on screen, as is the case with most thrillers – see The Next Three Days for a good example of a film rife with overly stretched-out scenes and far-fetched scenarios. Scott also avoids manipulation; an early scene of school kids on a train on a possible collision course with the runaway vehicle never descends to the exploitation it might have. And the characters’ back stories, a strained marriage, a wife lost to cancer, too, refreshingly, never succumb to sentiment. It looks like Scott has been galvanized by his involvement as executive producer of the character-driven TV drama The Good Wife.

Chris Pine and Denzel Washington in Unstoppable
It helps, immensely, that Unstoppable is so blessed with a strong cast and performances. Denzel Washington, who has made five films with Scott behind the camera, including Man on Fire, Deja Vu and the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, is one of those rare actors who can portray larger-than-life famous people (Malcolm X, and the late South African activist Steve Biko (Cry Freedom)) as well as supremely ordinary guys. And they don’t come any more ordinary than Frank Barnes, the veteran engineer he plays in Unstoppable. Washington is utterly believable as the 28-year employee of the railroad, loving father of two college-age daughters, a laid back and confident man who steps up to the plate when a crisis ensues. He rises to the challenge of a role that involves physical as well as mental challenges, depending on what Barnes has to do in his attempt to stop the runaway train. As Will Colson, the newbie conductor, Pine, one of the better young actors around, who shone as the young James T. Kirk in the recent revamp of Star Trek, manages to hold his own with Washington, no mean feat when that actor is at the top of his game. Also worthy of note is Rosario Dawson (Ed Norton’s girlfriend in 25th Hour, and the exotic dancer/heroin addict in Rent), another fine young talent, who manages to humanize what could have been a stock role as Connie Hooper, the woman who helps Barnes and Colson do what they have to do, even if it pisses off her corporate bosses. In fact, Unstoppable is one of those movies where every part, no matter how small, seems to have been thought out in terms of appropriate casting. Those include Kevin Dunn (Charles Colson in Nixon) as Hooper’s craven boss, who is more concerned with how much money the railroad will lose in property, if the train has to be derailed, than he is in lives that may be lost; and Kevin Corrigan (who played Leonardo Di Caprio’s drug dealing cousin in The Departed) as a savvy city inspector. Lew Temple (Waitress) as a hippieish welder, who plays a part in the film’s heroics, also stands out.

Unstoppable even comments on America’s corporate downsizing, wherein union employees, with full benefits, are being routinely axed in favour of younger men with no benefits at all, a state of affairs which impacts on the railroads’ employees. And the media, FOX News, et al, comes in for its fair share of criticism, too; sometimes their coverage is informative, too often it’s sensationalistic. Those extras – and a lesser movie would not have gone in for any of those smart observations – only adds to the film’s verisimilitude. And at a trim, fat-free 98 minutes. It’s just the right length for a fast moving thriller of this sort.

Unstoppable may not offer the great art of Black Swan or The Social Network, but it’s terrific entertainment, nonetheless. The only question I had upon leaving the theatre was why doesn’t Hollywood make good movies like this more often?

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute.

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