PG-13, 3.5 stars
Unstoppable opened on Friday and Saturday Night Live ran a parody of the film's trailer on the very next night. It was a good sketch with lots of laughs – what I loved was that some of the lines that drew the most laughter were not crafted by the SNL writers, but lifted directly from the film.
Directed by Tony Scott (The Taking of Pelham 123), Unstoppable is a straightforward action movie that's fun to watch. The film is listed as "inspired by a true story." The true story – paraphrased mostly from a CNN article – is this: On May 15, 2001, a runaway freight train barreled through 66 miles of northwestern Ohio with no one aboard. Two of the tank cars on the runaway train contained thousands of gallons of a toxic ingredient. When the train left its Toledo rail yard the engineer was "nearby," but not on the train. It was stopped by Jon Hosfeld, a 31-year veteran railroad worker who jumped onto the moving train and pulled the brake. The train was traveling about 10 mph when he hopped aboard. It had averaged about 30-35 mph during the trip, reaching 47 mph at one point. The 47-car train (quelle coincidence!) was slowed down by another engine in a coupling maneuver. Engineer Jess Knowlton and conductor Terry Forson helmed the rescue engine.
Screenwriter Mark Bomback (Race to Witch Mountain) takes the truth and jazzes it up like crazy. Forget Jon Hosfeld – in Bomback's version no one (certainly not screw-up Ethan Suplee) can hop aboard the train. The train, incidentally, is now loaded with both toxic materials and potentially explosive fuel. As train traffic manager Connie (Rosario Dawson) explains so effectively, "It's like a missile the size of the Chrysler building!"
In the movie, our heroes are veteran engineer Frank (Denzel Washington, in an especially chipper mood) and conductor Will (Chris Pine). Frank is old and Will is young. Frank is about to lose his job and Will is part of the rich family that owns the company. They couldn't be more different! But you know what they have in common? They've got guts, man, common sense and guts! USA! USA!
So there's the movie. Frank and Will banter and bond while everybody tries to stop the train before it crashes into something important ("There's a train full of schoolchildren on a collision course!) or derails in a populated area and crashes into something important ("Right next to the big curve there's a cluster of fuel towers!").
The film is simplistic to the point of silliness, which is part of the fun. Tony Scott uses every keep-'em-on-the-edge-of-their-seat trick in the book and most of them work. There's never a real sense of danger, but that doesn't matter. It's fun to watch the buddies-to-be squabble while the train crashes into expendable stuff. Unstoppable takes a real event and turns it into a pretty good amusement park ride.