Denzel Washington, doing the ice-cool zen master thing he so brilliantly inverted in Training Day, pulls off a remarkable coup in Unstoppable: he makes competence riveting. The veteran train engineer he portrays in Tony Scott’s high-velocity actioner eventually engages in some above-and-beyond heroics, but for almost an hour and a half, Washington is the most interesting thing on the screen simply as a guy who — often unlike those around him — knows what he’s doing. This is maybe a metaphor for Scott himself, an expert technician who builds this movie, piece by craftsmanlike piece, into something that resembles the out-of-control freight train at its center. It’s the first worthy successor to Speed.
Scott’s style is famously restless and dynamic, and he’s never employed it better. He understands that a movie about a runaway locomotive needs to feel like a movie about a runaway locomotive, and Unstoppable delivers: it’s constantly, rhythmically in motion even when the camera is trained on the dispatcher in the control center (Rosario Dawson) or the corporate bigwig in the boardroom (Kevin Dunn). And the train itself, set loose by a boneheaded and gratifyingly technical engineer error (the poor guy is played by Ethan Suplee, whom I’m always glad to see), is not just a special effect; it has real substance, weight and speed; it feels dangerous.
Washington’s journeyman engineer, named Frank, is driving another train that happens to be in the way. His conductor for the day is Will (Chris Pine), exactly the sort of sullenly roguish rookie you’d expect to be played by Chris Pine in a movie like this. As stand-ins for Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, they acquit themselves well, Washington in particular. There’s not much to them, and that’s the way it should be; indeed, the moments when the movie attempts real characterizations are its weakest. (Will’s divorce backstory is utterly useless, serving only to provide a worried spectator to occasionally cut to.)
Unstoppable is not quite as gloriously in-the-moment as Speed was, but it has the same sort of logic and relentlessness about it. The danger is simple and clearly defined (there’s a curving section of track in a nearby town where the train is sure to detail), and the attempts to avert it are as well. The film is expertly paced, gradually accelerating to a deliriously fun (if also, for the first time, somewhat contrived) climax.
If there’s a real flaw it’s Unstoppable‘s abortive attempt to manufacture a villain — the corpulent head of the company, notch. There’s no point; the movie doesn’t need it. It already has a much scarier villain in the faceless, merciless locomotive that Tony Scott, the ultimate pro at this sort of thing, makes so damn scary.