Wednesday 23 March 2011

On DVD: "Unstoppable"

Tony Scott's got his train set out once more. Hard to think Scott's bombastic Pelham 123 remake could have been a warm-up for anything, save perhaps nuclear armageddon, but many of the elements exploding out of the screen there recur in the director's latest, Unstoppable: flashing LEDs, yelping bulletins from dispatch, the business with throttles and switches and signals, Denzel Washington's teeth. The deal here is that a train has got out of control in northern Pennsylvania, which'll teach them for having put Randy from My Name is Earl in charge of it. Also out on the tracks this particular morning are a wagonful of young schoolchildren receiving a lesson in rail safety (of course), and a cargo train staffed by old hand Washington and rookie Chris Pine; Scott gets his best effects early on cross-cutting between the latter pair pootling out of various yards as they make their daily pick-ups, and the driverless express - number 777, but lucky for no-one - steaming around the bends under its own propulsion.

What follows is a 90-minute technical exercise, combining old-school stunts with high-speed shunts. The authorities put another train in front of the runaway to slow it, only for it to be nudged out of the way without so much as a by-your-leave; armed troops are sent to fire at a fuel-release valve that happens to be situated right next to the speeding train's fuel tank; there is much excited chatter about flanges and the relative merits of counterthrust versus tractor force; and the rail industry takes the opportunity to announce a hike in ticket prices in order to provide essential investment in network infrastructure. (One of these may only be true in the real world.) Mark Bomback's script sketches in a degree of conflict between the railroad executives seen in boardrooms and on golf courses and the working men and women left to sort this mess out, but it's mostly terse guy talk between Washington and Pine, doing what they can in roles that chiefly involve pulling levers, and svelte controller Rosario Dawson, practically the only woman in the film our heroes aren't estranged from, mainly because she knows her way around the local sidings.

Unstoppable doesn't have the humour or crisp structure of Speed; nor does it aspire to the pulp existentialism of Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, the grandaddy of this particular form (if we're not counting Keaton's The General). Scott's forte is kit, not wit, and it's his film's near-total absence of nuance or subtlety, that willingness to put foot to the floor and charge on through, that makes it pre-eminent Saturday night entertainment. Scott is now incapable of filming a big action set-piece without a police escort of the size usually reserved for the state visit of the Pope, a dozen or so helicopters buzzing around the focal point, and a three-ring media circus on hand to provide a (not very) knowing commentary on events. When Pine's ex, a single mom living with two children in functional rust-belt accommodation, learns the news of her man's heroics, she does so on a flat-screen television the size of Arkansas. Bigger is forever better here: in the downtime between derailments, Denzel checks in with his daughters, who just so happen to be working shifts at a branch of Hooters - a workplace presented as the positive-image of the dim, frazzled railway command centre, with its bright lights and screens flashing up sunny images of blondes with enormous tits. It's all buffers and front bumpers, and no less briskly enjoyable for that.

Unstoppable is available on DVD from Monday.

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