All is forgiven, Tony Scott ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, November 15, 2010

All is forgiven, Tony Scott

My rating:

Not a year and a half after the last Tony Scott-Denzel Washington collaboration, we get a new one. And since I didn't much like that last one, I went into this with less-than-sky-high expectations. I was especially worried about the fact that my seat was about 5 rows from the screen, which is never advisable when it comes to Tony Scott movies; his needlessly flashy, ever-moving camera is almost as bad as "found footage"-type films like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity. I would very much like for my head not to pound, thank you.

But if it can get my heart pounding, it's all good.

Will Colson (Chris Pine) is a rookie train conductor assigned to work with veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) at the Pennsylvania train yards. Meanwhile, at another yard, a careless railroad worker (Ethan Suplee) leaves a train running unmanned under full power - a half-mile-long, several-thousand-ton behemoth barreling at 70mph, carrying toxic chemicals, and heading straight for densely populated areas. Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) tries to coordinate operations whilst locking horns with bean-counting train company executive Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn), and railroad welder Ned Oldham (Lew Temple) races to catch up with the runaway train. But their best hope may be Colson and Barnes, who are on a train on the same track, and Barnes' daring plan to slow it down.

Aside from Scott's hyperactive directing, my other beef with The Taking of Pelham 123 was its been-there-done-that hostage thriller premise. That's not the case here. Unstoppable has been inviting unflattering comparisons to 1994's Speed, but it's an entirely different dynamic - and while the execution often falls back on clichés, the premise is fresh enough to be notable. Or rather, Scott makes it fresh enough. Looking back over the man's filmography, it's apparent that this film is a serendipitous match between filmmaker and material that Scott has never really had before.

Because if you're making an action-thriller about a runaway train, it's a smart idea to turn the train into the villain - faceless, implacable, terrifying in its sheer size and power and, well, unstoppability. That's something Scott does very well here, shooting it in low angles and tight closeups and aided by a thundering digital soundtrack. Mark Bomback's screenplay offers it plenty of things to threaten, from another train full of schoolchildren to a fuel oil depot next to a sharp curve, and Scott crafts each one into a terrifically suspenseful moment. He even manages to make a simple stunt like jumping from a car onto the train - an act that dozens of other movies have made look deceptively easy - into a white-knuckle experience.

There are the aforementioned clichés though. You've got your Evil Corporate Executive whose eye on the bottom line jeopardises the efforts of the regular blue-collar heroes who don't care 'bout no stock value. You've got people tangentially related to the heroes (their railway buddies, Frank's daughters) cheering them on whilst watching them on the TV news. You've got personal issues for both protagonists - Will is estranged from his wife, Frank forgot a daughter's birthday - that are readily resolved through the simple expedient of becoming an action hero. You kinda expect these things in a typical Hollywood flick, so they don't detract from the proceedings much - especially when the proceedings are so well done - but it would've been a better movie without them.

It helps that there's plenty of great talent both behind and in front of the camera. Bomback's sharp, witty dialogue help sell the expected buddy-bonding scenes between Frank and Will, as well as the arguing between Hooper and Galvin (although there was one laughable instance where Hooper turned into Basil Exposition). Rosario Dawson in the former role is great; she's been mere eye candy in so many movies, she must have relished playing a smart, tough character like this. Chris Pine is perfectly convincing as a regular working-class joe and shares some solid chemistry with Denzel Washington, who does his usual good job; although I gotta say, Washington is practically playing the same character in every movie nowadays. He even has a distinctive speech pattern that never varies.

So all props to Mr. Tony Scott then, for making a movie that made me feel a little bad for trashing his previous one so much. (Well, 2-½ stars wasn't exactly trashing, but I was harsher on him than the movie overall.) Thing is, the guy can be pretty inconsistent. Unstoppable works because Scott managed to make his signature style serve its premise - but few of his other films have been as strongly high-concept as this. Maybe for him it's not so much finding the right material as it is restraining his most indulgent directorial flourishes; maybe he just needs to make more Crimson Tides and less Dominos. In any case, I shall be anticipating his next movie - whether or not it stars Washington again - with a little more positivity. 'Cos this one was great.

Expectations: let's see what Mamat Khalid's got


k0k s3n w4i said...

I only went to see it because I have seen pretty much everything else playing in theatres at the mo, and my expectations were low. that's key, i guess. through the entire film, i frequently found my back leaving the backrest. this film literally had me at the edge of my seat. it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised.

are you going to review let me in? and did you see the original swedish flick? i thought the american remake is actually better than its predecessor in some ways (while reusing a lot of elements in let the right one in).