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Film Review: Unstoppable

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Locomotive, Means and Opportunity

(Unstoppable, Tony Scott, US, 2010, 98mins)

Tony Scott is the perfect director for austere times. He administers a kind of movie rationing whereby threadbare material is stretched to cover a feature’s running time. Ridley’s younger sibling holds the view that as long as your eyes are fattened, you’ll live and Unstoppable is crafted according to this philosophy. So what if you’re emaciated from the nose down?

It’s an archetypal Scott the younger mashup, overcooked, underwritten and suffused with the kind of empty stylisation that’s long been his signature. A man who can’t or won’t put away his childhood toys, Scott’s content to clip on the colour filters, give a dab of speed to his editors and make each shot as dynamic as possible so we don’t notice there’s nothing happening within the frame. How does one achieve this I hear you cry? Well, using a combination of in camera audience nudging – that’s crash zooming to you and me, 180 degree tracking and, er, well that will do surely?

Unstoppable is “based on true events” but you’re well advised to approach that authenticating stamp with suspicion. You could argue that Dracula 1972 A.D is based on Bram Stoker’s novel but it isn’t. Though inspired by a 2001 runaway train incident, it would have been an extraordinary gift to the filmmakers if those involved conformed to the action schlock template this well. Much gerrymandering was required. Welcome to the Machismo Express.

This is a very dumb actioner in which the Bruckheimer playbook, never in any danger of accumulating a layer of dust, has its pages fingered while the other hand attends to engorged genitalia. You’ll know many of the scenes and the characters that populate them by rote; there’s the worried families with the superior genes, watching their imperilled loved ones on TV and the control room where a group of pensive button pushers act as surrogates for the audience, cheering at every success, hand on mouth with every reverse and ready to whoop, clap and punch the air when the danger has passed. It wouldn’t be a disaster movie without the officious middle manager who always makes the wrong calls and ends up indebted to their subordinates – always a nice bit of wish fulfilment for the Friday night crowd, and there’s the lazy character who caused the shitstorm in the first place. In the finest tradition of Jurassic Park and numerous others, he’s a fat bespectacled fool, who inadvertently endangers all the better-looking cast members. Why are fat people employed in America, doesn’t anyone watch the movies?

In fairness to writer Mark Bomback, a decent fist is made of trying to crowbar some character into the empty shells that resemble Chris Pine and Denzel Washington, a task complicated by the necessity of both men spending much of the running time sitting in the cab of a locomotive, exchanging procedural jargon. If the narrative doesn’t give you enough story time to develop a character then the only alternative is the redemption arc, always guaranteed to leave an audience feeling better about the world at the close.

As working men they already have the audience’s sympathy but we’re a fickle bunch and there’s more to be done. Denzel’s veteran train engineer, a waspish old sage, has already called at Bad Parenting and is scheduled to terminate at Redundancy Central, but saving a city from a toxic chemical catastrophe sorts that out. Pine’s fledgling conductor has made a similar mess of his personal life, estranged from his pretty young wife and child following a false accusation of an affair and some threatening behaviour with a gun. Despite this, because who hasn’t got the wrong end of the stick and waved a loaded weapon at their spouse, all is forgiven when the rugged railman shifts into action mode. Few surprises then, but two families are restored in time for the end credits and anyone without one is reassuringly dead or destitute. Still, they didn’t have anyone so who the hell cares?

Unstoppable is a breezy enough diversion but the filmmakers take risks, occasionally testing the limits of audience goodwill. An extended advertisement for a Fox News affiliate grates, as does the patronising commentary on the movie’s action that comes with it. “Chris Pine’s character is trying to link the cars as you can see in the footage you’re watching NOW” and similar, for over an hour. You wonder if the train really does have to roar, in case we forget that it’s dangerous, while occasional attempts at anthropomorphising the beast – “we’re going to run this bitch down”, “we’re going to try and derail this son of a bitch”, produce more titters than tremors. Nevertheless, it’s undemanding entertainment that neatly taps into every man’s boyhood dream of becoming a train driver. Ladies are advised to look at Chris Pine and imagine the sex.

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