Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable” (2010)

UNSTOPPABLE, released in 2010, was Tony Scott’s last feature film before he took his life in August of 2012.  By turning in one of his finer directorial efforts, Scott goes out on a high note, with a genuinely solid capstone to an incredibly scattershot body of work.

Most directors never have the luxury of knowing what their final film will be.  If they do, the project is usually very sentimental, nostalgic, and bittersweet.  However, the vast majority of them read like business as usual, secure in the confidence that there’ll always be a next project.  With Scott, it’s tough to gauge where UNSTOPPABLE stands on that spectrum, as the circumstances surrounding his suicide are so mysterious.  We’ll never know whether or not Scott was actively aware that he was making his last feature film.  It’s especially eerie when you take into account that Scott filmed scenes of UNSTOPPABLE under the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, where he would later jump to his death two years later.

UNSTOPPABLE takes place among the rural Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, where rough-and-tumble blue-collar trainmen spend their days manning smoke-spewing steel snakes.  The rails are a way of life for these people, fueling their economy and feeding their families.  In terms of setting, it’s the most fully realized of all of Scott’s films.  The atmosphere has a palpable grit that makes the film really work.

The story begins when a half-mile long train carrying city-leveling amounts of flammable chemicals gets away from its conductor and begins barreling at top speed towards a large population area.  As various efforts to slow it down fail, the task falls to two wise-cracking trainmen (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) to attach themselves to the back of the runaway train and halt it themselves.

Scott is at his best when he collaborates with Denzel Washington, an observation that certainly applies here.  As a veteran train-man on the verge of retirement, Washington’s Frank is grizzled and gruff.  It’s somewhat fitting that Scott’s key career collaborator is shown in his last Scott film appearance as a man looking back on his life and career.  Frank is a member of the old guard, dispensing a wearied sage advice only when a young gun earns his respect (which isn’t often).  Like his character in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009), he has a few skeletons in his closet, which add depth to his character and make him more soulful.  Conversely, Chris Pine wisely eschews the trappings of his star-making turn as Captain Kirk in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK (2009), to play Will, a brash young father who’s trying to clean up the mess he’s made of his life.  Will carries a chip on his shoulder due to coming from money in a historically-poor part of the country, and his anger problems have led to marital strife and a series of odd jobs that never last.  He knows he has to prove himself, and he’s frustrated because it seems no one wants to give him a chance.  Together, Pine and Washington’s on-screen chemistry crackles with energy and the ball-busting humorous dynamic you would expect from two regular guys in a blue collar profession.

The supporting cast is also effective, headed by the ever-reliable Rosario Dawson as Connie, a local trainyard operator for the runaway train’s corporation, AWBR.  Mostly confined to her microphone in the operations room, her role is similar to that of Washington’s in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, orchestrating and coordinating the rescue effort from afar.  She excels in a boundary-pushing role that only falters at the end when her character is shoehorned into becoming a love interest for Washington.  Perennial human punching bag Ethan Suplee plays Dewey, the hapless conductor who lets his train get away from him and instigates the potential for massive catastrophe (way to go, man).  Despite having all kinds of shit heaped onto him by the other characters throughout the film, he takes it on the chin like a good sport and comes out somewhat likable.

A typecast Lew Temple plays AWBR’s man on the ground, racing alongside the speeding train in his truck.  He’s all manic energy and country drawl in his second collaboration with Tony Scott (his first being a bit part in 2005’s DOMINO).  As Oscar Galvin, the stuffy executive charged with looking out for the interests of AWBR, character actor Kevin Dunn serves as the main obstruction to Will and Frank’s efforts.  Galvin is the film’s pseudo-antagonist: a driven, stubborn man who, despite his intelligence and competence, can’t see the forest through the trees.  I spent a long time trying to place where I had seen Dunn before, before I realized that he was my favorite cast member in Michael Mann’s pilot for LUCK (2011).  Kevin Corrigan, an immediately recognizable character actor and frequent performer for Martin Scorsese, channels a young Christopher Walken in his depiction of an FRA inspector who finds himself thrust into the rescue effort.

Scott accomplishes something truly special with UNSTOPPABLE, in that he brings in a real lived-in sensibility to the visuals.  He eschews the sleek, flashy sheen of his previous films for a wet, gritty, and cold look.  Despite the story occurring in that space between the end of Autumn and the first snow, he draws a vivid beauty from the rural surroundings and smoky industrial landscape.  Setting-wise, Scott is coming full circle with his boyhood in the industrial fringes of England, as well as the gritty environs of his first films, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969) and LOVING MEMORY (1971).  The setting also allows him to add an element that, until now, hadn’t been present in his films: subtle social commentary.  At the time of its release, America was in the throes of the Great Recession’s death grip, with industrial/rural areas hit the hardest.  Whole towns, entire ways of life were on the line, not to mention the heated conflicts between unions and their corporate employers.  It’s all reflected in the film, albeit in a very overt, action-movie way.  But this subtext informs the characters and their motivations, and the result is a thematically rich film that’s also incredibly entertaining.

At the end of the day, UNSTOPPABLE is a Tony Scott film, and nowhere is it more evident than in the cinematography.  Working for the first time with Director of Photography Ben Seresin, Scott is up to his old tricks: high contrast, stylized color tones favoring the green/blue side of the spectrum, etc.  The overall color palette is mostly desaturated, except for reds and oranges, which punch loudly against the dreary blue mountains.  Skies and sunsets are still dramatic whenever possible (one would think it’s always sunset in Scott’s universe).  Camerawork is mostly locked-off, utilizing traditional framing that allows the setting to really soak into every frame.  Scott also continues to make frequent use of circular dolly shots, helicopter-based establishing shots, speed ramping.  The look is more subdued than films like MAN ON FIRE (2004) and DOMINO, which is consistent with a general paring-down of style in that stage of his career.  Even his famous dynamic subtitles are more subdued, crafted with a sensible, conservative font that animates rolls across the screen with little flourish.

Scott’s musical collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams would come to an end with UNSTOPPABLE.  For his last Scott score, Gregson-Williams crafts a traditional cinematic-sounding work that sells the action and the high stakes, but once again fails to deliver anything memorable or transcendent.  However, it’s inarguably better than the source music that Scott chooses to end the film on.  It’s a screeching Crunk track that’s moronic and obscenely off-tone with the rest of the film.  Really, it’s an incredibly baffling choice.  My jaw literally dropped at how bad of a choice it was.  I honestly can’t envision what was going through Scott’s film when he threw the track over the credits, but it threatens to undo all the goodwill Scott generated in the preceding two hours.  Given that this is his last film, and thus the last statement he’ll ever make as a filmmaker, I can’t imagine a worse note to conclude a career on.  It’s really that bad.

(Another baffling musical choice: re-using the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM theme in a scene that takes place at Hooters.  Seriously.  Did Scott like the track that much?  Could you imagine trying to choke down wings with this blasting in your ears?)

My only big gripe with the film is the laziness in which the news footage is handled.  Scott strived for a heightened realism in all his films, but the treatment of the live news report, which makes up a large percentage of the film, seem like an afterthought.  I understand that the news organization should be that bastion of unbiased media, Fox News, (because Twentieth Century Fox produced the film) but there’s a lot that defies the reality that Scott works so hard to create.  For instance, a dude says “bitch” on live TV, without any kind of forethought or attempts by the news reporter to censor it.  When they show photos of Frank and Will on-screen within the news report, the photos are well lit, and of professional quality.  In other words, they look staged.  Something tells me that two blue-collar guys aren’t regularly posing for professional glamor shots.  More candid photography would have gone a long way towards credibility.  And speaking of photography, the news footage is simply filmed footage for the movie, with a TV-looking filter slapped over it.  Last time I checked, the news didn’t capture its footage with 35mm film.  It’s lame, it’s lazy, and it took me out of the movie repeatedly.

Ultimately, these are all minor complaints.  The fact is that UNSTOPPABLE is a solid film that also ranks as one of Scott’s finest.  He had been on a downward trajectory in quality after MAN ON FIRE, but he managed to squeak out a win at the last second.  Scott’s films tell us very little about the man himself, because he was a utilitarian filmmaker– an action-genre maestro that was always more interested in entertaining us than making us think.  But with UNSTOPPABLE, Scott lets the socioeconomic subtext sink deep into his story, and provides his fans with a dramatically-rich experience and a sense of closure to a high-octane career.

Scott’s train has been barreling forward at full speed for almost 45 years now, and now that it’s been stopped, we can pause to reflect on the ride.  And what a ride it’s been.

UNSTOPPABLE is available on high definition Blu Ray from Twentieth Century Fox.