These are the ominous words uttered by yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) in describing the massive driverless train hurtling along the tracks through the rustic Pennsylvania countryside in “Unstoppable,” the thrilling new movie starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Based upon actual events and directed by Tony Scott (“Crimson Tide” and “The Taking of Pelham 123”), this terrific escape movie grabs you at its very beginning and doesn’t let you go until the final frame by which time you’ll be slumping limply in your seat from emotional exhaustion.
The film opens in the early morning at the Fuller Yard in Wilkins, Pa., where a shift change is under way. A group of elementary school children from Olean, N.Y., is scheduled to visit the yard as part of a field trip, and preparing for the guests involves moving one of the trains, a monstrous 777, to a different track. Normally this is a routine procedure, but one of the workers makes a careless mistake that turns the 39-car train into “…a missile the size of the Chrysler building.” Some of the cars are loaded with molten phenol, a lethal chemical that exacerbates the train’s dangerous potential.
While all of this drama is unfolding at the Fuller Yard, the railroaders at Mingo Yard 200 miles down the line are getting ready for another work day. And this yard has issues of its own. Younger men are being brought in to replace the veterans, and, of course, this doesn’t sit well with the old timers like Frank Barnes (Washington). Frank is an engineer with 28 years of experience, and he learns that his conductor for the day is going to be Will Colson (Pine), a rookie who has been on the job only four months. Will and Frank are going to be operating a 1206, one of the older engines, and their destination is a zinc plant.
As Frank and Will are heading out, Connie is back at the Fuller Yard issuing orders to get all the trains on the line onto side routes so that that runaway train won’t crash into them. Frank and Will can hear the dispatch calls, and at one point the 777 nearly hits their train, but as it goes by, Frank notices that the rear coupling on the last car is open, and he decides to ditch his assignment, put the 1206 into reverse, and try to chase down the runaway train.
The big concern with the 777 is that it is heading toward a very sharp turn that it won’t be able to negotiate at 70 mph. The turn happens to be located in the middle of a town, and if the train derails, all of the chemicals will spill and endanger the lives of thousands and thousands of people. Thus the race is on for Frank and Will.
“Unstoppable” is a fast-paced film filled with one tense and thrilling scene after another Just when you think you can catch your breath, something else happens to take it away again. Keep in mind that Frank and Will are traveling at breakneck speed backward. That’s bad enough by itself, but when they finally catch up with the train, they have to perform some incredibly dangerous tasks in order to get it under control. All of this leads to a terminal case of white knuckles for viewers.
Washington and Pine are perfectly cast as Frank and Will respectively. Both men have their problems, and throughout their harrowing ride together, they learn a good deal about each other. Frank’s wife died and left him with two daughters who now are college age, and one of them is not on speaking terms with him. And Will is having some serious marital problems that he shares with Frank. As the two men exchange information, the initial tension between the two of them dissipates, and they end up respecting each other as they work to bring the runaway train under control. In the film’s production notes, director Scott said the film was as much about the two men as it was about the rogue train.
“This was the most challenging and brilliant adventure I’ve ever encountered because I had to tell a character story inside something going very, very fast. It’s always about the performances — how I look at these two characters in a way I haven’t done before and be honest to who they are. The real challenge with ‘Unstoppable’ was capturing the character evolutions of Frank and Will, who are undertaking this monumental journey trying to stop this runaway train. But first, they must come to terms with one another and resolve their differences.”
Also in the production notes, Washington explained the source of the tension between Frank and Will.
“This is also a story about an age gap, how many businesses today are caught in an economic downturn and running the old guys out to bring in younger, cheaper labor to take the place of more experienced personnel. Basically Frank is teaching the new guy how to do his job so that he can take his place. Needless to say, Frank’s not too happy about that.”
Both Washington and Pine turn in excellent performances, and so does Dawson as the beleaguered yardmaster Connie, but the most important “character” in the movie is that huge train, all 1 million tons of it. Although the film depicts the 777 as travelling in excess of 70 mph, the train in the actual 2001 incident never exceeded 47 mph. But that’s Hollywood for you. In the production notes, Washington explained how important the train was to the film.
“The 777 is the real star of the movie. It’s the shark in ‘Jaws.’ It’s the monster in the room that’s going to destroy people, towns — anything and everything in its path. Chris Pine and I are just side men. It’s all about the train; that’s why it’s called ‘Unstoppable.’”
All local residents should enjoy the seeing the film because much of it was filmed in or near Canton, Ohio, Steubenville, Bellaire, Martins Ferry, and Mingo Junction. Also, many local people served as extras.
“Unstoppable” (Give it a solid 9.) is a nicely acted adventure with enough thrills to satisfy just about everyone. The cinematography, stunts, and special effects are spectacular. If you are in the mood for some pulse-pounding excitement, hop aboard the 1206 with Frank and Will. They’ll take you on a ride that you won’t soon forget.