After the one-two Avid fart punch of MAN ON FIRE and DOMINO, I swore off Tony Scott for life. Or, it turns out, for five years. Those two movies sounded up my alley but they were brutally murdered by Scott’s reckless disregard for visual storytelling. I just couldn’t trust him anymore, even if the movie sounded good, which his last couple have not, even if everybody said he calmed down a little.
Now, through the combined magic of blu-ray technology, boredom and Christian forgiveness, I have given Tony Scott another shot with the Denzel Washington-Chris Pine-speeding train motion picture UNSTOPPABLE. The bad news: I didn’t like the movie enough to justify ending my boycott. The good news: at least he’s curbed his instincts to mark his territory by stylistically peeing all over every frame of film.
I’m not saying its clean, crisp filmatism. It’s kind of Bourne-esque, lots of handheld shots zooming in and out to look like a documentary. But hey, you can basically see most of what’s happening, there aren’t any cuts quick enough to cause seizures in most people, and there aren’t, like, subtitles that move around or anything ridiculous like that. Just a normal shaky sort of thriller. Baby steps back to being a real director.
Now, I know people always say if you’re gonna do a remake it should be a remake of a bad movie. That’s why you shouldn’t remake THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. But I don’t care how weak it is, why would you remake UNSTOPPABLE, a movie that’s only six years old? Why replace the great Wesley Snipes with his MO’ BETTER BLUES co-star Denzel? And why change the plot so that instead of being about Wesley being a CIA agent who gets injected with a drug that makes him lose a grip on reality and think he’s back in Bosnia it’s about some guys trying to stop a train with no brakes? I mean, I get it. The train is a metaphor for Wesley. But still, is this necessary?
Otherwise it’s not a bad idea for a studio disaster thriller type deal. It’s kind of an APOLLO 13 type of “let’s all figure out a bunch of different things to try to solve this problem” type of movie. You got Rosario Dawson in charge, Kevin Corrigan at her side as a safety consultant, a corporate VP guy in another office making other plans, a redneck pickup truck driver on the ground chasing after the train, various local police forces waiting to help out when the train gets to them, and then our heroes are forcibly-retiring Denzel and despised-new-guy-on-the-job-also-going-through-marital-difficulties Chris Tiberius Pine. They’re on a train stuck playing chicken with the runaway one. They’re the rogue engineer and conductor who play by their own rules, and stick it to the man and what not by not believing other people’s theories and refusing a direct order to not be stupid and risk their lives to try their own plan for stopping the train. All these characters come up with different ideas of how to stop the train or derail it before it blows chemicals into some town in Pennsylvania. And they disagree with each other’s ideas or didn’t foresee what would go wrong or whatever and keep trying until they (SPOILER) stop the train.
Which is bullshit. If it’s called UNSTOPPABLE the train shouldn’t be so stoppable. To earn that title the movie would have to end with a time lapse of thousands of years of human progress, futuristic cities building up and breaking down and going to seed and being grown over with rain forest and the whole time the train keeps looping around the world, unable to stop. Or it should be like HALLOWEEN, the train seemingly is stopped but then it disappears and you hear its rumble echoing through mountains and valleys and dark territory all around the country. It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere and nowhere, it thinks it can it thinks it can, it’s unstoppable. I could’ve definitely done with some creepy music and long shots of the front of the train as if it’s alive and evil, like CHRISTINE or something.
It’s a good cast. It even has Jeff Wincott (MISSION OF JUSTICE) in it. And Washington and Pine have a pretty good anti-chemistry as dudes who don’t really like each other having to work together. Denzel does his usual asshole routine and Pine is kind of like Captain Kirk but a little darker when you find out why his wife has a restraining order against him. Of course they work things out by him almost dying on a train (SPOILER). She’s waiting for him at the end of the line, I was hoping her having the restraining order against him would force the train to stop once it got close to her. Or that after he saves the day the cops would arrest him.
I wonder if it’s common for a train master to be a good looking gal like Rosario Dawson? I gotta admit I don’t know a damn thing about the world of train operation, she might be a fair representation of most of them. I thought it was funny when the redneck guy was trying to explain to some cops who he was and mentioned who he works for, and one of the cops says “You work for Connie?” Everybody knows Connie. She’s the people’s train master.
This disaster is not Connie’s fault, she’s just here to clean up. The trouble was started by Ethan Suppley, the fat sidekick from that show I used to hate, My Name Is Earl. He’s supposed to be kind of a lazy dipshit of an engineer, he screws up by setting the controls of the train incorrectly, then getting off to manually flip a switch on the tracks and then failing to get back on the train. I guess this is what really caused the incident that the movie is loosely inspired by, but the movie also implies that if he just wasn’t so fat he could’ve caught up with the train. And then it makes a joke out of him, you’re supposed to laugh at him at the end. Ha ha, that slacker almost blew up a town. Ha ha. Luckily only one person was killed. The only thing missing is a subplot where he demands that Denzel recover half a bag of Doritos that he left on the train.
By the way, in a PG-13 movie you can mouth the word “FUCK!” twice if a train is drowning your voice out. It’s the yippee-ky-yay-gunshot principle. But you have to say “jag off” instead of “jack off.”
UNSTOPPABLE almost worked for me as just kind of a generic thriller. What killed it for me might not bother you guys, it might just be a weird pet peeve of mine. I didn’t have a problem with the action and peril being exaggerated and kind of ridiculous. I was willing to believe in these characters and what they were doing. My problem was with the two audiences within the movie, the people observing the main action: the media, and the people at home (and along the train tracks) watching. The way the incident is covered by the media and the way the people watching react both felt so blatantly false that it completely took me out of the movie and ruined it for me.
It’s a common problem in movies that I hate, the news reports that don’t sound like real news reports. It’s just like the fakey computers that are in so many movies, you wonder how these people who made the movie expect their audience to be made up of people who are not very familiar with computer screens or TV news. Are they making movies mainly for the Amish?
As far as I can tell this was not intended as any sort of satirical attack on the media, but the train disaster is constantly being covered by the newscopters and camera crews. They know what happened, they know the names of the people involved and they have good photos of them. They have logos and animated diagrams. They are able to fly down close to the action, show it, and always be completely aware of exactly who is involved and what they are trying to do and they’re able to explain it as it happens. So you get that double-whammy of not being believable as news coverage and being insulting of your intelligence as an audience member who already understands that he’s trying to climb down and push the pin down so that the trains can lock together, or whatever. And if Chris Pine’s character is annoyed that a loud helicopter is flying maybe ten feet away from him blasting air on him while he tenuously hangs from a high speed vehicle with a very high likelihood of falling to his death then he was very polite and never mentioned it at all.
At the same time they’re pretty pessimistic, at one point naming our two heroes as about to become the first victims of Pennsylvania’s deadliest train crash. Seems a little presumptuous.
Last week I watched CNN covering this speech by Egyptian president Mubarak. It had been leaked that he was gonna make a resignation speech, but when he finally got up there he made a long, rambling speech about how he was not gonna step down. It was in desperate need of an Oscar orchestra to play him off. The huge crowds of protesters who were gathered in the square were of course upset, and chanting (according to the text on CNN’s screen) for him to get out. Meanwhile Wolf Blitzer was very confused and kept asking, both rhetorically and to various other people appearing on the broadcast, why the crowd was so excited when it seemed like they should be upset about the speech. If it took Wolf Blitzer 5 minutes to figure out that the crowd was angry when it was written on the bottom of the damn screen I really do not believe that this reporter would be able to spontaneously interpret and correctly explain all of Chris Pine’s actions as he jumps across and tries to couple the two trains.
I just find it very hard to believe that it would be covered this way. And hey, whaddya know, I can prove that it wouldn’t be, because the real incident was not covered this way. I looked it up. When it really happened everything was kept secret. It was months before the company admitted what caused the accident, and they never released the name of the engineer involved or said what happened to him (or her). The stopping of the train was shown on live TV, but it wasn’t so dangerous because in real life the idea of coupling the train worked much better than in the movie, so they didn’t have to jump from a moving vehicle FAST AND THE FURIOUS style. They actually slowed it down enough that a guy just ran alongside and jumped on.
Maybe even less excusable than the phony news coverage is the phony reactions from the people watching the news, or watching live from alongside the train tracks. This is one of those movies that has a whole damn lot of shots of crowds standing around looking nervous, scared, happy, triumphant, or whatever while watching all the action on TV. People reacting to the TV footage in control rooms, offices, living rooms and a Hooters restaurant (seriously – Denzel’s character’s daughters both work there. Apparently their bosses don’t send them home even though their dad is in extreme danger. And it’s even one of ’em’s birthday. What the hell? But at least they get to watch the TV, they’re not taking people’s orders or anything).
But like the news media the people watching all seem to have omniscient powers and understand everything that’s going on, as if they’re actually watching the movie themselves. For example, when one of our heroes has to jump from a truck onto the train or vice versa as soon as he transfers from one vehicle to the other all of the crowds smile and cheer. Why? He has not gotten himself to safety. He has moved from one out of control vehicle to another of the same speed. He is just as likely to die horribly right before our eyes now as he was a few moments ago. But somehow his wife instantly knows what we know, that movie conventions dictate that he will now survive. And that’s a good thing, because for some reason she has brought his very young son and is holding him up for a good view of his father’s almost-certain-but-apparently-now-just-barely-avoided horrible tragic live on TV heroic death.
I mean, how am I supposed to believe in the danger if the characters clearly don’t? Rosario calls the redneck guy on his cell phone while watching him drive 70mph next to the train, and the fucking guy answers! And she didn’t even have anything important to say, such as “Don’t answer your phone while you’re driving! Keep both hands on the steering wheel!”
So, sorry to say but UNSTOPPABLE is easily toppable. Not very good, and not Tony Scott’s best. But very, very far from his worst. Way to improve, I guess?
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.