The few critics who view Scott as a kind of postmodern wizard of time and space — there are defenses of his underrated Déjà Vu (2006) that compare it to Vertigo — get new evidence from Unstoppable, an exercise in pure action that’s awful in terms of character and dialogue…but very exciting in other regards. Its inspiration comes from a 2001 news blip about an unmanned train that barreled through Ohio carrying combustible material; it was finally slowed down to ten miles an hour, boarded and halted. No such luck here. Now it’s racing into oncoming traffic toward the 'Stanton curve' in Pennsylvania, unencumbered by the decisions of bureaucrats who would sooner risk destroying a city than see their stock devalued with a derailing.
Must Washington and Pine put up with this sh*t? If the rapport between two leads is hokey — the former is a grizzled train operator; the latter is a rookie on his first day of a job he got through nepotism — the focus on Rust Belt labor and an outmoded form of transport feels weirdly politically relevant; viewers are likely to emerge with a newfound appreciation for the complexities involved in their morning commute. What might on paper seem like a Speed rip off is actually simpler and more streamlined: A train can’t maneuver as much as a bus, and our heroes have only so many switch-offs and miles of parallel road they can use to stop it.
More than in Scott’s Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, it’s oddly riveting to see an action movie that’s not about objects flying at warp speed, but a vehicle that barely exceeds the average velocity on an interstate. Locomotives have been in movies since the Lumière brothers, but Unstoppable makes you wonder why they aren’t used more often. Ben Kenigsberg