Embellished on a true story, Tony Scott’s Unstoppable has the fundamental elements of a good meat-and-potatoes thriller: a runaway freight train careening down the main line, a couple of likeable blue-collar types tasked with stopping it, and a tight 90-plus minutes to get the job done. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine have a nice low-key rapport as a veteran engineer and a neophyte conductor thrown into danger on their first day working with each other, and the film slowly, skillfully builds tension on a steady escalation of mishaps. Yet Scott, who never met a movie he couldn’t overstylize, has trouble staying out of his own way, and his screenwriter, Mark Bomback, keeps adding stock situations and dumbed-down language to steer the drama toward bland convention. It’s an unnecessary struggle between the streamlined, punchy movie it should be, and the more slovenly, indulgent movie it is.
The early scenes are promising, as employees at a Pennsylvania train yard go about their daily business, speaking in a lingo a general audience will understand without necessarily knowing the specific words. (This as opposed to later, when an unmanned train carrying toxic chemicals is likened to “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.”) Pine plays the new kid on the job, a conductor four months off training who draws suspicion because of family connections. Close to being forced into early retirement without full benefits, Washington has every reason to resent the new kid, but the two settle into a tense but productive working relationship. When low-level ineptitude at a northern train yard sends an unmanned train in their direction, and every attempt to stop it fails, Pine and Washington carry out a high-risk plan to keep disaster from striking.
As long as Unstoppable stays on the train, it’s queasily effective. Washington and Pine have a strong, often funny chemistry, the dramatic stakes are raised incrementally, and the interplay between the two leads and the professionals on the other end (played by Rosario Dawson and Kevin Corrigan) feels authentic. But Scott and Bomback have both men hauling needless personal baggage (Pine’s marriage is on the rocks, Washington flaked on his daughter’s birthday). They use local news coverage as plain-language exposition, and have two full cheering sections (including one at a Hooters) to root the rescuers on. In a taut thriller like Unstoppable, any additions are a subtraction.