Although the title of Tony Scott's Unstoppable refers to a runaway train headed for a derailment that could kill thousands, it could just as easily apply to Scott's camera movements.
You'd think the premise alone would generate enough urgency and excitement. Newbie train operator Will (Chris Pine) and grizzled veteran engineer Frank (Denzel Washington) learn that a runaway locomotive carrying carloads of dangerous chemicals is headed for Will's small Pennsylvania hometown, where his wife and young daughter live. In order to save the day, they must figure out how to catch up to the rogue engine, and stop it before harm comes to the town. Standing in their way is Galvin (Kevin Dunn), the head of the company who is more interested in saving the stock price than lives. On the plus side, the duo have competent corporate employee Connie (Rosario Dawson) on the radio, talking them through their various attempts to corral and then stop the potentially lethal locomotive.
As with other Scott movies (Enemy of the State, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), Unstoppable features wild chase sequences separated, sometimes for long periods of time, by lengthy phone conversations between various groups of people, many of whom are keeping track of the main action on video screens -- including, in this case, Fox News coverage of the impending disaster. In order to keep the tension artificially high during these endless expository exchanges, Scott pans his camera back and forth with such ceaseless abandon that even Michael Bay might get motion sick. This would be less of a problem if the main action sequences were imaginative, but aside from the admittedly spectacular destruction of a few vehicles, Scott never manages to figure out how to make us feel the relentless speed and power of the train.
As with most every Tony Scott movie, Denzel Washington delivers his lines with enough relish to top all the hot dogs eaten during a baseball season. Washington has fun, and as always that fun is contagious -- the movie might seem tired, but he isn't. As is fitting with Scott's MO, he throws a large number of talented actors in minor supporting roles hoping they can make something interesting happen with dialogue that he knows is nothing more than functionary. Ethan Suplee does his patented doofus schtick as the guy whose ineptitude sets the runaway train in motion, Kevin Corrigan sticks in your head as a nerdy science whiz who offers some sage advice when it comes to physics, and Lew Temple just about walks off with the movie as Ned, a good old boy whose quick reflexes and fearlessness prove to be most helpful. We're thankful for these brief moments of comic relief because they actually slow down Scott's frenetic editing rhythms and his ADD camera movements.
What's most disheartening is how many of the film's images are given to us as live TV news coverage. Scott's not making any kind of point, satiric or otherwise, about how local news teams report on disasters, and their wall-to-wall coverage of the train has nothing to do with the plot. This ongoing device seems to be there only so that Scott has yet another thing to cut to, and so that 20th Century Fox can synergistically get the Fox News logo on the screen.
To be fair, Unstoppable delivers what it promises. It's a movie about chasing down a killer train, done in a style that is so obviously Tony Scott's that credits seem entirely superfluous. It's safe to assume that people who respond to his visual sensibilities will enjoy this thrill-ride as much as his others, but when so much of a movie seems to be shot from the vantage point of television news cameras, it seems reasonable to ask why you're paying to watch TV.