ON THE SILVER SCREEN: MAKE TRACKS FOR "UNSTOPPABLE"

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By Brian Lafferty

 

November 12, 2010 (San Diego)--Tony Scott’s last movie, The Taking of Pelham 123, had exciting action and suspense on an immobile subway train hijacked by John Travolta with Denzel Washington trying to stop him. In Unstoppable, we get equally exciting action and suspense on a runaway train loaded with toxic chemicals with Denzel Washington trying to prevent it from careening towards a populated town.

 

Unstoppable is the latest entry in a recent line of Tony Scott action movies where the editing and pace is frenetic, the camera moves around constantly, and there are lots of explosions and crashes. The story takes a back seat to the action but I didn’t mind. I was expecting to see trains smashing into stuff and Unstoppable satisfied my appetite.

 

Starring alongside Denzel Washington is Chris Pine, who is familiar to most moviegoers as Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Both his characters in that movie and Unstoppable have the most unsettling first days on their respective jobs. In Star Trek, he plays an arrogant, reckless newly commissioned captain thrust into battle against a galactic foe.

 

In his most recent movie, he employs a similar persona only this time he’s an upstart and somewhat arrogant new train operator. He and Washington don’t get along together; Washington is being forced into retirement so that fresh, younger guys like Pine can take their jobs. They eventually have to put aside their differences to stop this train before it kills thousands of people.

 

When I reviewed Red a few weeks ago, I talked about fast-paced editing done properly. This is the perfect example. Tony Scott is a director who always gets it right. It isn’t just him but the editors he employs. One of the cutters for Unstoppable is Chris Lebenzon. Over the years he has had a solid relationship with Scott. I offer Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, and Pelham as evidence of their consistent, successful director/editor relationship. Like the output I just cited, the edits in this movie are quick and hyperkinetic but Lebenzon makes each cut nearly invisible. This is primarily because he lets the action dictate the editing and not the other way around.

 

Writer Mark Bomback, whose previous credits include Live Free or Die Hard, has written a screenplay that is both gripping while also at times sparing. There is a lot of suspense and people do die. The action sequences are few. There aren’t too many crashes and smashings and that is a positive aspect. Bomback knows when to hold back. This accomplishes three things: 1) The movie doesn’t get boring; if there was nonstop destruction, it wouldn’t matter how well-done it was, it would have gotten tiresome after a while, 2) Each action sequence and crash carries the same impact as the previous one and 3) It avoids repetition; there are a lot of different things to crash into and a variety of dangers. It would have been easy for Bomback to write himself into corners but he doesn’t.

 

Unstoppable is an action movie done right. There are no incongruous special-effects and action sequences thrown in for the sake of having action; every one of them is integral to the story. It also contains two important characteristics vital to solid action movies: three-dimensional characters that are easy to care about and a simple, comprehensible story.

 

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