Sunday, May 22, 2011

Unstoppable: Dumb action, or characters with substance?

Unstoppable (action, drama, thriller)
Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson

20th Century Fox | 2010 | 98 min | Rated PG-13 | Released Feb 15, 2011

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French, Portuguese, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1

English SDH, Cantonese, French, Mandarin (Traditional), Portuguese, Spanish

50GB Blu-ray Disc
Digital copy

The Film 4/5 

After directing movies about planes, cars and a submarine, Tony Scott’s last two efforts have involved trains. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 used a train as a setting, but Scott goes a step further in Unstoppable, making a train one of the movies’ stars. Trains are big. Scott has Washington walk in front of a few at the start of the movie to show us just how big they are.

An irresponsible worker makes two mistakes that set events in motion, deciding to move a train without connecting the air brakes and then leaving the cabin to pull a lever at the side of the track. The train is moving too fast for him to get back on and pulls away under full power.

Will Colson (Pine) has been a conductor for four months. He reports to work and faces resentment from the older workers. They assume he’s inexperienced and think that younger, cheaper workers may be a threat to their own job security. He’s assigned to work with Frank Barnes (Washington), who has similar feelings. Colson makes a couple of mistakes and Barnes thinks his fears are justified.

The runaway train is initially thought to be a “coaster,” but it soon becomes clear that it’s under power and capable of traveling at approximately 70 mph. An early effort to board it fails, so a decision has to be made. Yard Master Connie Hooper (Dawson) suggests derailing it before it reaches populated areas. Her bosses disagree because they are worried about the financial cost.

Various other attempts fail to stop the train and it’s left to our heroes, Barnes and Colson, to try their own solution. They give chase in their train and plan to link up with the runaway and use their own brakes to stop it.

Other factors are also thrown into the mix. A group of children on a school trip are on a train on the same line as the runaway and the threat of a collision is high. The runaway is pulling half a mile of freight cars and several contain volatile chemicals. The track leads to a curve which has a speed limit of 15 mph and it’s close to a heavily populated town.

Just enough time is given to establishing the back stories of Barnes and Colson and it explains their motivations for chasing down the runaway. The tension builds throughout the second half of the movie and the action rarely allows us to take a breather. Failed attempts early in the story show us that our heroes are in danger if they continue the pursuit, but the alternative is a potentially huge disaster should the train derail.

The story doesn’t sound very complicated and it isn’t. The action takes center stage, but what did you expect? I found myself engaged throughout and the three main actors put in good performances. I’m rarely disappointed by Washington and I also liked Pine and Dawson here.

Video Quality 4.5/5
Unstoppable looks good on Blu-ray. Scott seems to have made some of the colors unnaturally bright, making everything stand out. The train in particular looks imposing with its red and yellow paintwork. Detail is excellent throughout and the print is clean. It felt like most of the action was taking place right in front of me.

Audio Quality 5/5
Nominated for a sound editing Oscar, Unstoppable sounds great too. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix places us in the middle of the action. Trains aren’t just big, they’re heavy. The track makes us aware of that with a pounding rumble that will give your sub a good workout. It’s backed up by the squeal of brakes and metal-on-metal. Dialogue comes across clearly and there’s plenty of supporting effects from the rears.

Special Features 3.5/5

The special features focus heavily on the technical aspects of making the movie. Scott goes into detail about how he likes shots to be real rather than CGI. They include:

Audio Commentary with Tony Scott.

Tracking the Story: Unstoppable Script Development with Scott and writer Mark Bomback.

The Fastest Track: Unleashing Unstoppable (30 minutes)

Derailed: Anatomy of a Scene (10 minutes)

Hanging Off the Train: Stunt Work (14 minutes)

On the Rails with the Director and Cast (13 minutes)


Sneak Peaks

BD Live: Feeling the Heat – Unstoppable Pyrotechnics (3 minutes)

IMDb Live Lookup

Digital Copy

Overall score 4/5

Action movies can be dumb and full of clumsy exposition, but Unstoppable isn’t one of those movies. Scott has made a largely believable story which includes characters with a little depth. It has plenty of replay value because I have already watched it three times and it’s still an enjoyable ride. If you like movies such as Speed, you’ll probably get something out of this.

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