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Unstoppable (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time 98 minutes.

OK for children.

This is a slam-bang winner. In my opinion, it’s director Tony Scott’s best, and he has the Tom Cruise hit, Top Gun (1986), to his credit. Unstoppable makes Top Gun pale by comparison. Inspired by an actual event involving a runaway train On May 15, 2001, a 47-car freight train traveled some 70 miles, unmanned, before it was brought safely to a stop; the train was carrying thousands of gallons of the hazardous material molten phenol acid), Scott and screenwriter Mark Bromback have fictionalized it to make it more cinematic.

Frank (Denzell Washington), a 28-year veteran, plays off against rookie Will (Chris Pine), for whom there is resentment because his father is a Union boss and in a time of layoffs, he got a job. Chris is having problems with his wife, which worry him during the course of the movie.

Even though the relationship between Frank and Will is interesting, this is the story of the train that is speeding across Pennsylvania with a toxic product and nobody at the wheel, with what seems like the entire state trying to figure out a way to stop it. However, as you might have guessed, if Frank and Will don’t stop it, disaster is inevitable. Tension mounts with each passing second.

The production notes claim that Washington did most of his stunt work. I guess I have to take that at face value, but he does admit that most of the harrowing work on top of the train that the insurance company wouldn’t permit was done by a double. But, frankly, I don’t care if he did them or not. Washington is as close to Cary Grant and Clark Gable as a 21st-Century Hollywood star can get.

Although the action takes place over a two hour period, it took 3 ˝ months to shoot it. Hard as it is to believe when you watch the film, there was no CGI used. All the scenes were actually shot. Altogether the production used eight locomotives and about 60 individual train cars. In addition to all the ground cameras and the four principal cameras on the train, the company used high-speed tracking vehicles like the Pursuit System Porsche Cayenne camera car, motorcycle rigs, quad rigs, and two helicopter rigs. Clearly, when CGI is not used, it becomes a huge production.

In the climactic scene when the train rounds a bend where the track was strictly regulated to speeds less than 15 miles per hour but the film called for a much higher rate of speed, Scott resorted to what he calls “old fashioned smoke and mirrors tricks” to increase the train’s momentum.

While the cinematography (Ben Seresin) is extraordinary, what really makes this film something special is the sound (Bill Kaplan). The screening room shook sometimes with the sound effects as the huge trains sped down the tracks.

Also giving an exceptional performance is Kevin Dunn as Galvin, a corporate big wheel and one of the few heavies in the film. Dunn will be recognizable to fans of Law and Order because he played one of the more memorable villains, although I looked for the credit and couldn’t find it.

With Scott and Washington at the top of their game, I can’t imagine anyone not finding this a treat, although you might be out of breath at the end.