Thank goodness the word itself is never spoken in the film

My father worked on the railroad during most of his early years of employment.  He was out on the tracks repairing switches, one of the more dangerous jobs in the field.  He’s told me countless tales of his railroading adventures.  As a sort of homage to the old days, he keeps an ever-expanding model train set (Lionel O-Gauge) in the basement of his house.  Back to that in a moment.

My love for the films of Tony Scott is no big secret.  True Romance is one of my favorite films (see my discussion of that film), and if you haven’t seen Spy Game or Domino, I’d urge you to do so.  Do I even need to mention Top Gun?  This year’s lick from the younger Scott brother is Unstoppable, a fairly straightforward thriller concerning a runaway train.  The cast includes Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer who recently received his 90-day notice; Chris Pine in his second-ever leading role as Will Colson, a young conductor paying his dues; Lew Temple in an excellent supporting role as Ned Oldham, lead railroad welder and “country boy;” and Rosario Dawson in a mature turn as Connie Hooper, a train dispatcher.  Ethan Suplee, Jessy Schram and T.J. Miller also appear, as does Kevin Dunn as the greedy railroad boss more concerned with property than personnel, though whenever I see him I can’t help thinking of his role as the annoying Joel Hornick in the early seasons of Seinfeld.

What keeps Unstoppable from becoming popcorn pre-holiday movie fare is the heart behind it and the attention to realistic detail when it comes to the railroading profession.  Train 777 runs away fairly early in the film, and from there on it could have been nonstop shirtless Chris Pine action, but the film actually goes against the grain.  Colson isn’t an action hero: he has issues at home that eat away at him throughout the workday, and he genuinely tries to learn from Barnes.  Barnes has his own sob stories, including a dead wife and apathetic daughters (who work at Hooters).  These back-stories serve as little more than ways of setting up reasons for Barnes and Colson to survive the ordeal, but the characters introduced are interesting, almost becoming the audience ourselves as we watch the crisis unfold on the faux news reports (though the fact that a single news chopper is following the 70+ miles-per-hour train the entire time becomes a bit silly).  The opening of the film does not concede to the trappings of the action genre, as we slowly pan over the yard, watch the trains rotate on their platforms, and witness the mundane grit and grime of the workday.

Scott’s unique visual style really shines here, with arguments between characters escalating into choppy, curse-laden montages, and shots of train 777 barreling along the Pennsylvania tracks take the form of morphing, multiple-shot images from the underside of the moving behemoth.  Leave it to Tony Scott to say to a camera crew, “I’d like a shot from under the train, while it’s moving.  Thanks.”  Where this could have been a standard autumn thriller to hold us over for True Grit and the obligatory holiday blockbusters, each little facet of Unstoppable goes above and beyond.  You may even get a laugh or two before you leave the theatre.

A film like this reminds me of my dad’s train set.  It’s full of visual candy and rapid movement, but it draws a deeper interest in how the railroad works.  Of course, it is not the railroad itself, in fact little more than a complex diorama, but it’s an entry in a proverbial museum, facilitating the process of chronicling the history of a vital and beloved profession.

Unstoppable (2010); written by Mark Bomback; directed by Tony Scott; starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson and Lew Temple.