DVD: Unstoppable (2010)
Label: 20th Century-Fox / Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: February 15, 2011
Genre: Action / Disaster
Synopsis: An unmanned train with toxic goo is headed for a populated area. Can it be stopped in time?
Special Features: Audio track 1: Commentary by director Tony Scott / Audio track 2: Tracking the Story: Unstoppable Script Development / Making-of featurette: (29:41)
Essentially a disaster film distilled to a tale of an unmanned locomotive and its toxic cargo headed straight for a populated area, Unstoppable isn’t an original concept – it’s reportedly based on a ‘true event’ – but unlike Atomic Train, the bloated 1999 NBC TV mini-series about a train with nuclear waste headed towards a major city, Mark Bomback’s script keeps things lean and simple: a careless decision results in a runaway train, and every effort to halt ‘the beast’ on wheels fails until a pair of conductors take fate into their hands and risk their lives to save the town.
Bomback’s script lay in development hell for two years until director Tony Scott picked it up, and after detailed research and further rewrites, it was transformed into a simple disaster film without any fat.
The major characters are aging engine driver Frank (Denzel Washington), green-eared conductor Will (Chris Pine), and rail manager Connie (Rosario Dawson), and while neither is particularly deep, they’re written and played with the same blue-collar realism found in that other monster train film, Runaway Train (1985), as well as the multiple characters involved in finding and stopping a runaway subway train in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), which director Scott remade in 2009.
The villain in Unstoppable isn’t the train but human incompetence, beginning with the foolish driver who figured he could beat time and hop off and on the train to kick a rail switch in place, and a blundering rail supervisor whose two major emergency efforts – air dropping a man onto the train while a new engine attempts a front-end slow-down, and a later derailment – fail miserably.
The big surprise for action and disaster fans (if not train aficionados) is that every train is real. Scott also went for old school stunts, using a pack of trains with multiple tracking cameras to capture the chase, the failed efforts to rein in the machine, and the finale, with as many actors in motion at all times.
On the one hand, Scott is the perfect director, bringing his indulgent visual kinetics to the drama by using multiple angles and constantly intercutting between staid and moving scenes, but he’s also the worst choice: as a producer, he would’ve mandated (and perhaps second unit shot) the action scenes and left the major dialogue scenes to a less visually psychotic director, but his decision to treat Connie’s dialogue scenes (she’s often seated, much like Walter Matthau in Pelham) with fast-crabbing cameras is ridiculous and nausea-inducing.
The constant movement within short-lived shots – be it the dated jerky NYPD Blue movements, jump cuts, or punching into a shot from medium to close-up from blurry to in-focus – are pure style over any dramatic substance, and as much as Scott believes he’s transferring his ‘painterly’ approach to filmmaking – shots applied as colored brush strokes – it’s overkill, and almost ruins the film, save for the realism of the trains.
Even action scenes suffer from the visual excess, as is the case of the attempted helicopter drop onto the runaway train, while two news copters zip by in close proximity. It’s all beautifully choreographed, but the grace of movements – machines coming into frame, passing vans and trucks, etc. – are far too brief. One only need examine a similar sequence in The Cassandra Crossing (1976) where an attempt to get a man onto a runaway train with plague victims is covered in a variety of shots held for different durations, conveying both action and the visual elegance of the trains moving in and out of tunnels.
A stranded horse cart on the train tracks is another simple scene that’s ruined by vomit-churning, fast-cut shakycam footage of frightened horses being pulled off the tracks. Fast cuts and multiple angles for the moment ‘the beast’ smashes through the cart and truck are fine, but the agitated horses segment is just plain messy.
The stunt work, however, is first-rate, and in spite of the fast edits, one still enjoys the close calls Washington and Pine experience as they attempt to stop ‘the beast’ before it reaches a sharp curve and tumbles into a dangerous area. It’s arguable whether the stunts scenes where Sean Connery walks atop a train and ducks low bridges in The Great Train Robbery (1979) are superior, but Scott managed to prove real trains, minimal CGI, and stuntmen doing risky work is far more exciting than the heavy CGI used by lazy directors (not to mention the tightly budgeted productions like Atomic Train).
Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is perfect for the film – punchy, percussive, and evocative of clacking wheels and chugging motifs – and the sound mix provides aggressive effects within the 5.1 spectrum.
Fox’ DVD includes a generic making-of featurette that’s actually quite informative, with plenty of footage showing the trains, and practical and camera rigs used for this elaborate production. Scott also provides a director’s commentary, but it’s banal because he focuses on the mundane character minutia that are nowhere as detailed as he thinks.
The track would’ve been far better by having writer Bomback provide details of the writing & research periods, not to mention the ‘true life’ incident that inspired him. There’s no reason why additional recollections couldn’t have been added to create a fluid and lively discussion of this snappy & engaging actioner.
The alternative for the DVD’s producers was to edit the hours of story conferences between Scott and Bomback into an alternate audio track, which is conceptually interesting, but it’s ultimately just rough ideas about scenes and characters, details and dialogue; if it was Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman discussing North by Northwest (1959), it would work, but not a flurry of ‘what ifs’ for the 80-odd mins. of what’s a marginally successful B-movie with crackhead visuals.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan
CD: Unstoppable (2010)
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Amazon.co.uk – Unstoppable [DVD] 
Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review