Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Tony Scott's "Unstoppable" is a relentless action film, but not in the form that action films usually take nowadays. Most filmmakers making action films today assume that the audience only has an attention span of about 1-2 seconds. Scott understands that this is not entirely true. His film is one that allows the action to steadily increase while allowing us to see everything every step of the way, and because of this he is able to rise above the usual preconceived notion regarding the genre.
Will (Chris Pine) is four months out of train conductor school and is now starting his first day on the job. Frank (Denzel Washington) has the job of breaking him in and teaching him the tricks of the trade. Meanwhile, another train operator makes an incredibly bad mistake of hoping off a slow moving train in order to switch from one track to another. The train's throttle switch somehow becomes activated, causing the train to hurtle away from him.
With no one else on the train, the railmaster's office labels it a "coaster," thinking that it is merely coasting down the tracks. However, they soon learn that the train is actually under power, which is a considerably worse problem. Will and Frank quickly learn of the situation and at first have to find a way to get out of the runaway train's way. After this, they take it upon themselves to attempt to stop it before a disaster occurs involving the dangerous chemicals that it is carrying.
Scott has a history of making films that amp up the suspense pretty well including "Enemy of the State" and the extremely tense and underrated "Crimson Tide." He has a way of telling stories that make you glue your eyes to the screen and focus on whatever perilous event may be happening. "Unstoppable" contains such a situation, and it's one that I can't recall having seen in any other film.
The tension slowly builds up with the speed of the train. At first, we think it will be an easy problem to solve when the train slowly begins to chug away. Other train workers even laugh as the operator stumbles while trying to get back onto the train. Little do they realize that the train is actually picking up speed and very soon it's rocketing down the tracks at 70 mph causing more than one very close call.
There are several moments where you'll think "Why don't they simply do that
?" or "Why didn't that do that sooner?" that cut into the suspense a bit. We are shown an emergency stop button on the same side of the train that the conductor had been running alongside when originally trying to reboard the still slowly-moving train. Did he simply forget it was there? Then there's the possibility of airlifting someone to the control car (which they sort of try once, but fail), but, of course, these options would mean that there wouldn't be much of a movie.
There isn't much in the way of character development. The most we end up learning about the main characters are that Will is having a problem with his wife and Frank is having a problem with his two daughters. However, this isn't really the kind of movie where people are too concerned with something like character development. They are concerned with the action, suspense, and how on Earth someone is going to stop this disaster from happening.
"Unstoppable" also has excellent pacing. It runs a very brief 90 minutes that fly by because of a gripping story and a little of that suspense Scott brings to the table. Scott proves once again that action movies don't need to be a headache-inducing, bright, loud, irritating experience, but instead can be something more when given the right treatment. 3/4 stars.