What We’re Watching – 4/5/2011

While in the last few weeks I haven’t had much opportunity to get to the theaters, just like everyone else at the MacGuffin, that hasn’t stopped me from watching stuff.

I just got done watching Unstoppable on Blu-ray. This is the Tony Scott runaway train movie starring Chris Pine and Denzel Washington. People often describe this as Speed on a train. While that’s a nice tweet sized summary of the plot, it’s still pretty amazing how much tension Scott was able to ring out of what essentially is an industrial accident involving a freight train. One of the main differences from Speed is that there is no nefarious purpose behind this plot. Quite simply, a railyard worker (played by Ethan Suplee of My Name Is Earl fame) jumps out of the cab of a slow-moving train to throw a rail switch, but is too slow to get back in the engine. The throttle gets stuck and then the race is on.

Firstly, this movie is good at setting up a plausible real world scenario. Supposedly, this was based on a true story, but a little online research states that the actual incident took place in Ohio, not Pennsylvania, and that the actual train topped out at about 47 mph instead of the 70 to 80 miles per hour shown in the film. Still, the thriller aspects come from the mechanics of stopping a fast moving 20-car train, with failed attempts at derailing it or switching it to another track. The main goal is to slow it down enough for it to successfully make a sharp turn through a populated area. Denzel plays a veteran railman who knows stopping distances and break systems off the top of his head. Chris Pine is the green newbie who has a lot to learn, but is still essentially a good guy. He’s made past mistakes, but still doesn’t flinch in helping out by volunteering to get in harm’s way.

There are a couple of criticisms though, even if I admit one is strictly based on personal taste. The values of the hard working blue collar heroes feel like a very red-state heartland version of the “real” America, that occasionally I find off-putting. These grizzled laborers are kind of a fictional version of the gruff heroes of TV shows like Deadliest Catch or Ice Road Truckers. I’ve never really enjoyed that genre of TV either. Those shows always suffer from showing only the flashiest elements of their professions. Even when they show the truly unpleasant sides of backbreaking work, it’s always the most extreme example, and it tends to ring false. I felt the same thing here. Denzel knows more than all of those book learnin’ types combined cuz he’s a true railroad guy, and he can show them all, by essentially being the John McClane of the rails. Very macho. (I’m oversimplifying the character, but there is an air of this hero worship in the film).

A bigger complaint is Tony Scott’s insistance on using the same tracking shot about 150 times throughout the film. A lot of scenes have the two protagonists in the train engine looking out the window and talking. I realize they are trying to make it dynamic, but the camera keeps on the same swirling tracking shot around both of them over and over again. You see it a lot in action movies. To jazz up dialogue scenes, the camera will pan from left to right, focused on the main character, so the background moves behind them slowly. It gives the illusion that something is actually happening. Look, I don’t mind this move every so often, but this same technique is used to hideous excess in Unstoppable. While I love a lot of his movies, the look of a Tony Scott movie can be glossy and overblown. That is kind of the case here as well.

But, overall, the movie is exciting and fun. There is genuine tension throughout, the train rams through trucks and cars really well, and the Blu-ray is an exciting aural experience. In the pantheon of out of control locomotive cinema, Runaway Train with Eric Roberts and Jon Voight may be a better film, but Unstoppable is worth watching.

Final Grade: B


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I'm a family man who got his Drama degree back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and now works at a desk. I love movies of all kinds, and I am still working my way through the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.

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