One day in 2001, a locomotive now dubbed "Crazy Eights" led more than 40 cars—at times pushing 50 mph—on an unintended joy ride that required fast action in order to avoid a major catastrophe.
The legend of CSX 8888 doesn't end that day, however; about a year later, that same engine derailed, and although that is not covered in Unstoppable, there's always room for it in the sequel.
The inherent danger of making a movie like this is that a train can't be a movie star, and there must be something other than two hours of a locomotive speeding toward an unsuspecting city to engage an audience. The main plot, therefore, is almost an afterthought: The calamity will either be averted (the most likely scenario), or a small community will be absolutely destroyed. Therefore, the emphasis might be on the runaway train, but it has to be shown through the eyes of the characters trying to stop it—and this doesn't suit director Tony Scott very well.
Scott is the younger brother of Ridley, and when he's on his game—as he was in the overlooked Man on Fire, from 2004—he can juggle legitimate drama with high tension and provide a compelling visual style. Other times, he turns in films like Domino, which is all style and no substance, or The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which is about a stopped train, of all things, and never comes to life.
Here, Scott is re-teamed for the fifth time with Denzel Washington, who plays one of the men chasing the runaway train. In the movies, of course, it isn't enough to have a train heading toward a sharp curve it could never handle at 50 mph. No, this train is transporting nuclear waste, too. Of course it is.
Washington is paired with Chris Pine (Star Trek), obviously playing off the barren screenwriting concept of mismatched partners. Despite that rather lifeless approach and the arrow-straight story development, Scott manages to craft a fairly effective popcorn movie. He knows when to play the right notes, when to amp up the action, when to push for a laugh and when to let Denzel Washington be Denzel Washington.
Learning about the characters' lives is not terribly interesting stuff, but the pacing of their development blends well with the runaway train, and it provides welcome relief from constant shots of a train steaming ahead. But no matter what trickery Scott employs, it's still a train on a track—and it gets repetitive pretty quickly.
Washington and Pine are chasing the runaway locomotive in another engine, with hopes of eventually boarding the runaway train and applying the brakes. Again, because this is the movies, they do so driving backward. This supplies a little bit of flavor, as does Rosario Dawson as the tough-talking dispatcher watching the whole ordeal unfold from her command center.
To be blunt, movies like this should never work. There are no true unknowns to consider. The performances won't be that great, because they exist only to break up the monotony of the opening pitch. Somehow, though, Unstoppable genuinely works. Tony Scott puts the pieces together while also managing to, more or less, muzzle his signature eye-popping style. True, the flashy editing and cinematography in his films can be evocative, but it can also prove to be distracting.
His style might have even worked here, because the story is so direct, but the great technical achievements of Unstoppable primarily involves aerial photography and stunts, two aspects of movie-making that often go overlooked. This film—centering on actors racing against time to stop a train you know they'll stop from the minute the movie begins—would be sunk without both.