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Unstoppable


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
moving plot.

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.

Old heads see off new faces at Old Trafford…just


It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.

All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.

For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.

Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.

Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.