With Hollywood plumbing the depths of comic books, action figures, video games and even board games for source material, director Tony Scott manages to make a blockbuster action film out of an algebra problem. If Train A leaves the station in Brewster, Pa. going north at 40 miles per hour and Train B leaves the station heading south going 60 miles per hour, how long does it take Denzel Washington to stop them from colliding and incinerating a whole city? Ignoring "distance divided by rate equals time," Scott spends nearly all of the film's 100 minutes chasing the runaway train in "Unstoppable."
Washington plays Frank, a 28-year veteran engineer of the railroad on the verge of forced retirement, who is partnered with the young conductor, Will (Chris Pine from "Star Trek"), who is only four months out of training. At the train-yard, we learn the tough older working-class engineers don't take kindly to the fresh-faced rookie, who might soon be replacing them.
As Frank and Will start their day checking cars and pulling pins on the track, another team of engineers isn't getting off to a good start. Dewey, played by Ethan Suplee ("My Name is Earl," "The Butterfly Effect"), neglects to tie the air brakes on his train and then abandons his conductor's chair (despite his coworker's protest) to switch lines, leaving the train in high gear. As it picks up speed, Dewey fumbles and fails to get back on the train. "Great going, Dewey! Go catch up with your train," his coworkers chastise him, until rail-yard manager Connie (Rosario Dawson) realizes the unmanned train is not a "coaster," but instead, as Connie summarizes, "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building."
This is director Scott and Washington's fifth teaming, and it largely follows the same formula of previous ventures. Washington plays the brave and good-at-what-he-does cop/boat captain/bodyguard/train conductor as well as usual, but fails to reveal any layers in his character. His chemistry with Pine works well, but it's really the younger actor that creates a compelling and nuanced hero for us to root for. Maybe Denzel is training Pine to replace him as the new-generation action star.
The story moves relentlessly along, crosscutting between the points of view of our two heroes, the rail-yard control room (which feels a lot like NASA), an expense-minded corporate executive, and news footage that fills in the story's gaps and relays the unfolding drama to the families of those involved.
The hyper-kinetic cinematography and MTV style editing, a trademark of Scott's, work in the film's favor, as do jolting sound effects and heart-pounding score. On paper it might sound like a typical high-concept chase film but the solid performances and effortless direction make it worthy entertainment for anyone looking for an adrenaline rush.