Some directors like to hook up, again and again, with certain actors. They prefer to stick to what they know and the distinctive flavour that took them to the top. Often the steadiest ingredient in the recipe can be a reliable leading man. Even when they feel like trying something spicier it saves time and worry to bring in a professional that’s proved himself.
Gore Verbinski seems unable to kick Johnny Depp out of bed. Ridley Scott appears to have adopted Russell Crowe. Christopher Nolan is partial to teaming up Christian Bale and Michael Caine beyond Wayne Manor. Even legends like Steven Spielberg, with diverse and successful careers behind them, go through phases with the likes of Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks.
With action films in particular it’s easy to see why directors aim to avoid the hassle and expense of scouring the globe for a fresh hero. For one thing the set pieces take centre stage. The audience don’t want a rookie they’ve never seen before, and therefore someone they have to spend time getting to know, plodding about and ruining the spectacle with back story. And then there’s the challenge of casting the right villain.
Most blockbusters need a foe for its heroes to confront. Today’s film industry is dominated, powered and sustained by superhero franchises that require new threats with each instalment. Christopher Nolan has flirted with perfection before against expectations but you worry that even a man with his talent, in the prime of his career, will struggle to top the impact of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Tom Hardy’s Bane may look suitably feral and formidable in leaked photos but the ever swelling size of the cast for Nolan’s final Batman is a strong indicator that he’s throwing the kitchen sink at it because of the pressure.
Tony Scott’s go to man for a top central performance has been Denzel Washington for some time now. In fact Washington has become so
associated with Scott’s no nonsense and average action packed romps (think Deja Vu and The Taking of Pelham 123) that his reputation as a character actor seems to be increasingly a thing of the past. His last widely praised role in a
quality production was probably in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster in 2004, alongside of course the director’s soul mate Russell Crowe.
In Unstoppable, Tony Scott has all the bases covered. He’s got his star, good old Denzel, and he plonks him next to someone younger in Chris Pine of Star Trek fame. He also wheels out the feisty feminine charms of Rosario Dawson. Perhaps best of all he has no real bad guy to worry about getting right, despite the incompetence of some company executives and layabout employees. The focus of the “inspired by true events” story is a mindless runaway train, half a mile in length, loaded with hazardous, flammable and explosive cargo; thundering at almost a hundred miles an hour through the towns of Pennsylvania.
I was expecting what everyone said a typical Tony Scott film would be like. Predictable, loud, silly, stunt stuffed entertainment. Unstoppable was hailed as a return to form for Scott but only a return to adequate thrill rides with no substance. Some reviews lament the lifeless destruction of it all, whilst others admit to a guilty pleasure. They all agree that we’re dropped straight into a fast
Unstoppable is efficient and economical with its plotting but it doesn’t kick off at a relentless pace, no matter what the reviews tell you. Sure it is racy throughout, but the whole thing builds up and acquires momentum, much like the train the story follows, eventually steaming to a pulsating and gripping climax. It takes 55 minutes for Pine and Washington to encounter the runaway train properly and decide to chase it down.
The story has two different strands for the bulk of the opening hour. In one we get to know the characters Pine and Washington play as they go about their work, bantering with one another. The other chronicles the journey of train 777, from creeping in the yard to steaming through the countryside like a missile, and the attempts to stop it from Rosario Dawson’s local HQ and Kevin Dunn’s corporate one.
Unstoppable delivers the unexpected. It is in many ways predictable and preposterous, as critics claimed it would be. The ending is never in doubt and the subplot of Pine’s character’s wife getting a restraining order should feel very
implausible. But it doesn’t, somehow all the back story to the two lead
characters works in the rush of the race against time. This is a film stuffed
with suspense and tension but it only has intensity because of the emotional
investment we make in its heroes. At times they are crudely drawn but these are
ordinary men, men you could know, whose plight and eventual triumph tugs at the heart strings as well as whichever gland pumps out adrenalin.
Denzel Washington may be playing second fiddle to a mostly action based story once again but he effortlessly gives it much needed soul. Chris Pine too is excellent and these two key performances lifted Unstoppable above standard action fare for me. It’s far from a profound piece of art but don’t believe the haters that label this purely mechanical entertainment.