Friday, December 21, 2012

Cinema 2010: On tracks for disaster

If you like locomotives I hope you find one underneath your Christmas tree. You might also want to screen "Unstoppable" from 2010.

The title of this unimaginatively written action flick turns out to be a somewhat inaccurate description of the massive runaway train the movie is about. In the end, however, perhaps that title alludes to something even greater.

Playing second fiddle to the choo-choo is Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who is Frank, a 28-year veteran of the Pennsylvania railyards assigned here to work with Will (Chris Pine), a well-connected rookie. While Denzel is fun to watch, the star doesn't try to break any new ground here when it comes to acting.

The opening scenes paint a tableau of poorly disciplined workers with even poorer morale. Then there is Frank, a good-humored but demanding senior presence. While Frank lays down his rules for the new guy, in another railroad yard mistakes made and compounded by a hapless worker are setting in motion the impending disaster of a runaway train.

As the ghost train gains momentum with the inevitable smoothness of destiny, elsewhere along the main line Frank and Will get off to a rough start. With the out-of-control train bearing down on them, the protagonists sidetrack their squabble. Later it turns out both Frank and Will are stand-up guys who will respond to an emergency with selfless heroics. By that time it is clear no real harm will come to them as the movie chugs along to its inevitable happy end. Thus the climactic acrobatics and perilous efforts of the heroes atop the speeding train remain devoid of suspense. It is a sharp and disappointing contrast to the latent terror of the opening scenes where an awkward worker tries to climb out of a slowly rolling locomotive to throw a track switch by hand.

In "Unstoppable," reporters and cops swarm the landscape as the mega locomotive smashes its way through rural road crossings like an iron tornado. Director Tony Scott overuses scenes of news reporting to advance and comment on his narrative. Maybe the film's title really refers to a media motormouth who never learned to shut up long enough to let events speak for themselves.

Scott intercuts the action with shots of the heroes' loved ones, but we get it already: the wife wishes she had returned her husband's calls, daughters regret their teenager rebelliousness. Those sappy scenes have their place in such a film but Scott lays it on double-thick.

The only original character in "Unstoppable" is a welder named Ned, played by an original, Lew Temple. (See photo below.) Ned is a blue-collar know-it-all whose diner-counter panacea is precision, and he hammers home that mantra to any waitress in earshot, even while his unabashed enjoyment of the morning's bacon and eggs makes him late for work.

But whenever "Roger that" Ned is onscreen, the audience is being entertained, not least of all by this refreshing performer's ability to steal scenes.

Finally, despite the worn stereotypes offered up here — corporate veeps mismanaging from an isolated boardroom, or the company's owner pausing on the links just long enough to greenlight some cockeyed crisis strategy — "Unstoppable" leaves us with the general impression that beyond the outskirts of Big City America, and in spite of an ever encroaching bureaucratic incompetence and the sad existence of a widely neglected national infrastructure, there still exists a homeland of down-to-earth self-starters.

Though they may be hotheaded and unshaven, those Americans can still answer the call of duty with determination and ingenuity. And no matter how cheesy its ending, this movie would have us go on believing in our American archetypes for one simple reason: they, and by extension we, have hearts big enough to be unstoppable.

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