Tony Scott’s last two films starred Denzel Washington, as a righteous ATF agent who travels back in time to stop the terrorist bombing of a ferry (Deja Vu) and as a kindly subway dispatcher who foils an armed robbery in a remake of a ’70s thriller (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3). They were both terrible. So it doesn’t come as a great shock to find Scott’s new movie, Unstoppable, starring decent Denzel foiling a transportation disaster, and it’s even less surprising that the picture is a throwback. It could have been released in 1973 under the title Runaway Train. It is nothing more than a runaway-train picture. But—against all expectations and its own dreadful marketing campaign—it is a really good runaway-train picture. In its direct, steaming way, it is the most satisfying genre exercise Scott has ever made—easily the equal of The Last Boy Scout or Enemy of the State.
Like the fateful engine accidentally loosed from its railyard, Unstoppable gains momentum with a beautifully slow build. Its first 30 minutes are little else than an on-the-job instruction course in how freight gets carted through the rusting industrial wasteland of southern Pennsylvania, juxtaposed against an unfolding scenario of how freight should never be carted through southern Pennsylvania. Veteran engineer Washington is teamed with new hire Chris Pine (young Kirk in the Star Trek reboot), and they don’t like each other at all. And then here comes that runaway train going the wrong way on a one-way track, toward them, crashing into horse trailers and loaded with highly combustible molten phenol (“used in the manufacturing of glue,” someone helpfully notes), and if you can’t see the appeal of this scenario being performed with real stunts and a minimum of CGI and two actors who play the material straight and true, then the pleasures of Unstoppable are not your pleasures.
But if you are the slightest bit intrigued, let me add that there’s a scene where a guy is lowered from a helicopter down to a train chugging along at some 80 mph, and another scene in which Denzel tells a sneering corporate flunky he is going after that train, but “not for you…I’m not doing it for you,” and both scenes made me feel a little better about the state of contemporary moviemaking. And if you are wondering what the higher value in all this is, I’d respond it’s of no more value than that Lumière brothers short, L’arrivée d’un Train en Gare á La Ciotat, that supposedly made everybody run away thinking the train was heading for them. It’s the value of observing men at work who understand what their machines are capable of. PG-13.