Friday, November 12, 2010

Unstoppable (2010): An Intense Ride!

I often think that it is a serious risk, if not outright mistake to mention in the beginning of an action/thriller that it has been inspired by or is based on true events. That’s because it dooms the film to at least a certain level of predictability, which can be the death knell for an average action thriller. You know the film will turn out in a certain way, in most cases, a happy ending (otherwise you would have heard about it, like say, 9/11) thereby making the task of creating reel tension a difficult, if not near impossible job. Few true stories translate well into thrillers: the one that comes to mind immediately is Greengrass’ United 93. Therefore, when Unstoppable came with the tag “inspired by real events”, I was skeptical. However, Tony Scott overcomes obstacles to give us a heart stopping thriller and arguably the best mainstream action film of the year.

The premise is simple: due to a mix of human error and sheer bad luck, there is an unmanned half mile long train carrying some seriously hazardous material heading at the speed of 70 mph towards a city with 750,000 people. I did not understand much of the details and honestly, I doubt that anyone would care. Two rail employees, a veteran driver (Denzel Washington) and a rookie conductor (Chris Pine) are driving a train on the same track from the opposite direction and come up with an ambitious, risky plan to stop the train before it reaches its horrific conclusion. Also involved in the plot is a station master/train dispatcher (Rosario Dawson), who is trying to help the situation and the company’s vice president (Kevin Gunn), who is in denial about the options available.

Now, Unstoppable works because the writer and director get a few crucial things right. First, and foremost, they wisely sidestep gooey sentimentality, cornball humour and similar clich├ęs and thereby give us lead characters that look heroic without unnecessary overkill. Second, the tension is built steadily in the first half to give way to a seriously intense second half instead of a chaotic “all hell breaks loose” approach, something filmmakers like Scott and Michael Bay are very much guilty of in the past. Scott packs a real punch by keeping the premise simple and relying on a docudrama style, a feverish pace, a serious tone and some sharp editing. Third, the action, though relentless is real with minimal use of CGI. This gives a sense of believability, a feature so rare in big budget action films these days that it is worth appreciating for its own sake.

Also, for me, the film works particularly because of its choice of a villain. Here, the villain is not a human, a superhuman or even an alien. It is a train; a lifeless, mechanical and ordinarily harmless vehicle converted into a demonic, out of control missile with nothing but the promise of horrific destruction. It makes no mistake, breaks no rules, and misses no steps. It has its basis in human error, but that is irrelevant. It is its cold, clinical precision that gets under our skin. That is why films like Speed worked so well. Its appeal lies in its conversion of a harmless bus into a speeding bomb with a simple rule: fall below 55 mph and you’re dead. Honestly, how many people remember, or care about what happens after people get off the bus? The rush lies in that ride. And that is precisely what Unstoppable delivers: a massive adrenaline rush.

Last, but not least, simple but effective principal performances help keep the viewer’s interest alive throughout. Denzel Washington does nothing here that he hasn’t done before. But he does it so well that the familiarity is more endearing than annoying. Post Star Trek, Chris Pine is shaping up into a fine action star and his work here only helps him along that path. After a few initial missteps (namely Princes Diaries 2 and Just My Luck), he finally looks capable of becoming an A list Hollywood actor. Rosario Dawson does a fine job as a headstrong woman in a man’s world and gets away with some of the best lines in the film.

At the end of the day, there is nothing in Unstoppable that you haven’t seen before. It is as conventional as they come. The only difference is that you rarely get to see it done this well. As far as edge-of-the-seat action entertainers go, this is arguably your best bet this year.

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