Excuse me laying this on you, but I’ve had a crisis of faith recently.
It started in class the other week, when a clip of 1998′s “The Siege” was shown. After the conclusion of the trailer, the professor in question asked for responses to the clip.
“I just can’t believe, after watching that, that people still take Denzel Washington seriously as an actor!” said one of my classmates.
I found that comment strange. This was the man who had brilliantly inhabited civil rights flashpoint Malcolm X early in his career and, while making his way through a few poor choices (for instance, I’m sure both he and Russell Crowe would like to forget “Virtuosity”) earned himself an Oscar for his menacing performance in “Training Day.”
But then there was “John Q”. And “D?j? vu”. And if it wasn’t for John Travolta’s strangely homoerotic financier/terrorist in “The Taking of the Pelham 123,” Washington’s spineless dispatcher would have been the glaring flaw of the movie.
Wrap up those roles and place on top the bow of SNL’s recent pitch-perfect impression of his eccentric questioning attitude in standard action roles, and you start to wonder if Washington really is just exaggerating his own personality: Is he the black, subdued Nic Cage that we just never recognized?
His latest, “Unstoppable” doesn’t do much to quell that fear. In it, Washington plays aging train engineer Frank Barnes, who is stuck on the 1206 in Pennsylvania with rookie conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine, “Star Trek”). While they bicker in engineering lingo about train cars and velocity, another train, the 777, has accidentally been abandoned at full throttle and left to run through a series of highly populated towns with explosive chemicals on board. As yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson, “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”) tries to manage the situation under the watch of her bullheaded corporate supervisor Oscar Gavin (Kevin Dunn, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”), Barnes, who narrowly misses the train after some maneuvering, decides to chase down 777, in reverse, at 70 miles per hour.
The premise seems unbelievable, but is actually based on real events that happened with a CSX train in Ohio in 2001. Even the movie’s most asinine approach to stopping the train, attempting to shoot the emergency stop located right next to the gas tank, actually was attempted in some fashion.
Director Tony Scott (“The Taking of the Pelham 123″), does give this film a more engaged look, with most of the camera work being done with distant or odd angles and abrupt zooms, reminiscent of a documentary’s “as-it-happens” fluidity.
But complex cinematography doesn’t change the fact that we’re trying to make rail transit exciting. Yes, we can wax on about Pennsylvania’s working class and invoke the sooty industrialism of the labor force in Pittsburgh, but it’s still a story about a runaway train. And had it just been called “runaway train,” no cinematic technique would have been able to push this film into the stratosphere of high class.
But Scott could have marshaled a new approach to fix the pacing. The first 45 minutes see the introduction of Barnes and Colson, the runaway train’s start and some mundane arguments between Barnes and Colson over track maneuvers. Yet, it takes a separate train explosion and a limp marine thrown by helicopter into the cabin of the train for the audience to say “Wait, I think this is exciting now.” A disaster movie with high stakes fails to be thrilling until the very end of the movie.
Perhaps that’s because as much as danger is implied, we have no idea what “Molten Phenol” is, why dynamic breaking fails, or what an independent break is. Or perhaps the TV helicopter positioned 15 feet from a runaway train in a heavily wooded area makes it seem like an unintentional “Mission: Impossible” parody. Maybe it’s the movie’s unintentional allegory for BP and its hair-brained solutions to problems it caused is not something to muse over in an action movie.
Or perhaps it’s because the main hero, Frank Barnes, is the same man we’ve seen in countless other movies. Sure, he’s got some daughters to live for here and his chemistry with Colson works well, but there’s no great emotion, just the same stone-faced, but cock-sure Washington that we’re used to in our impressions.
If we know how Washington works in these movies, down to the character nuances, solutions and sacrifices, what surprises are there really to watch for?
2 stars out of 5