Directed by Tony Scott
Indeed, the sense of a timetable adhered to pervades The Unstoppable Train, which is nothing if not self-aware about the goods it's delivering. As expected, its cargo is dangerous: the delightfully sinister MacGuffiny-sounding "Molten Phenol." As expected, the cute and innocent are threatened as the silent, inexorable devil-red engine races across roads, alongside houses and through fields: it bears down on wild and domestic animals as well as a whole trainload of schoolkids on a field trip. As expected, heroic Denzel Washington must leap from car to car like a latter-day Yakima Canutt. By the time Rosario Dawson's voice-on-the-headquarters-end-of-the-radio describes the runaway as "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!", you'll wonder whether The Unstoppable Train wasn't shot to the specifications of a totally rad joke trailer, a la Machete.
As Washington and sidekick Chris Pine first outrace the runaway to a siding, then race it down to couple up before it flips off an elevated curve in downtown "Stanton," PA, Scott finds the rhythm that eluded him in Pelham 123. There's a lot of moving parts in The Unstoppable Train, and a lot of geography to move them across (all monitored and relayed by Dawson): the runaway of course, and oncoming train traffic; the roadblocks and crowds gathered to watch it pass; the spotter racing alongside it with a police escort; the engineers and ambulances and hazmat teams deploying. Like The General, another feat of rail-traffic control, The Unstoppable Train treats moviemaking as a matter of engineering, of algebraic chicken games, rundowns, switchbacks along a closed network. Though there are, shall we say, illuminating differences between Buster Keaton's serenity and timing, and Tony Scott's aesthetic of random collateral damage, evident even down to his whip-panning cameras, sickly-saturated color filters, propensity to shoot seemingly infinite coverage and then use bits of use of all of it, even for dialogue scenes.
Really, though, despite all Scott's train-set toying, helicopters play nearly as big a role. There are helicopters to give us overhead shots of the speeding train, and of other helicopters, spotters and rescue choppers and TV news crews, themselves filming all the other helicopters (by cutting back to Washington and Pine's womenfolk watching the story unfold in breathless, serious-voiced local news telecasts—many channels, but only the Fox logo is shown—Scott keeps us almost comically up to date on the progression of the plot).
But even through all this high-wire spatial hopscotch, the Rust Belt location permeates, even if it's only a blur of vinyl siding or a scuffed brick apartment building near a riverside rail yard. The Unstoppable Train, with its working-class heroes griping about layoffs and the union, is recession-era where Pelham 123, with its disgraced Wall Streeter baddie, forced its way into the financial crisis. Appropriate for our currently mad-as-hell electorate, the attitude here is that particular type of blue-collar American populism that can go either way. Old hand Washington gives Pine a hard time before the kid proves himself; they quippily come to respect each other for their mutual mastery of machines—unlike the fat goof-offs who let the train run away from them in the first place, or the golfing fat-cats and pudgy middle managers who want to stop the train as surgically as possible. But no, this is a man's job, and when the job is finally well-done, you'd have to go back to the deck of the aircraft carrier at the end of Top Gun to find as pure an example of Scott's celebration of manly capability.
Opens November 12