Blu-Ray Review: UNSTOPPABLE - Frenetic Fun While It Lasts But It's Hardly Memorable

I honestly thought that the Train-based action movie had seen its last days. Way back when Siege 2 rumbled onto screens in 1995, I thought that might be the end of it actually, but it seems Hollywood will always have a fascination with the idea of the runaway train story, whether it represents only one set-piece (as with Spider-Man 2 and Toy Story 3) or the major thrust of the film (The Taking of Pelham 123, and Speed- a runaway train film on less wheels). Unstoppable is firmly of the second camp, a good old-fashioned small-scale disaster movie, released from the hands of one of the most accomplished spectacle focused film-makers of this generation, Tony Scott. Tony Scott's films are really judged by the same parameters of other big budget directors, and it would be surprising to see any of his films included come the prestige Awards season, but several would rank among the most enjoyable I have ever seen, including True Romance, Man on Fire and Days of Thunder. But that's the key word "enjoyable"- for some reason Scott's ability to entertain, to offer purely escapist thrills and spills is somehow judged as less worthy of praise, which of course is ridiculous. He consistently offers simple plots and simple characters, usually against an explosive backdrop that takes advantage of his typically effervescent camera-work style, and Unstoppable is no different. In a year where films sought to take us to the next level of complexity, throwing out head-scratchers like hot dinners, it is quite refreshing to have a film like this that is purely about escapism and the thrill of an immediate event. You can sum the entire film up in one statement- 'Help, the train is out of control, please stop it before it kills lots of people!!!'- which work for me as an exercise in brainless escapism. Oddly, for a director who is so in-tune with his creative agenda (no matter what your opinion of that agenda), the relative success of Unstoppable is not in the details- all of the characters are vaguely familiar, almost archetypal of the genre, with the grissled, slightly cynical veteran who goes by the book (Washington), teamed up with the green, comparatively naive, but feisty rookie who has his own ideas (Star Trek's Chris Pine). Oh, and both of them have friction at home. It's your usual odd-couple set-up, a fractious relationship characterised at first by tension, and then resolved for the good of the masses (or to save the potential victims of the train specifically), and the effect of that dynamic is dampened somewhat by the careless inevitability of their developing closeness. I have to admit when I heard Washington was to play a Train Conductor, my mind immediately conjured up an image of him decked out in British Rail's finest uniform, chasing vagrants from his train and checking the toilets for non-paying hoodlums while bellowing "Get off my train!" in the manner of Harrison Ford in Air Force One. And I'm still a little sad it didn't happen- but Washington is happy enough playing this type of slightly grumpy, wizened veteran role (he perfected the pursed-lips look long ago after all) and while he isn't break any new ground for Tony Scott, he brings just about enough charisma to the role to draw the attention. I did quite like Chris Pine, and fully believe that he and Washington could pull off a reasonable partnership on screen, but this is way too cliched and over-familiar a film for it to ever work, and I can't help but feel like the script relies too obviously on the on-screen hot-headed kid image that Pine developed for Star Trek, and will probably be lumbered with for a while now. He does show a little more range here though, wearing the scars of his broken relationship well, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that neither his nor Washington's backstories seem to actually matter to the progression of the film rather than as an almost unspoken bridge between the two men. The success is rather in enjoying how frenetically the events unfold, presented in Scott's typical style, heavy on quick-cuts and swooping and revolving movements- this is no more than a (hugely) expensive B-Movie, and there is some enjoyment to be had in the recognition of generic cliches. This is not high-brow art, and as long as you don't pick apart the bridging bits, the action sequences are impressive and enjoyable enough to get by on. Shame, it's not always that easy. In an oddly miscued attempt to break up the action, Scott flip-flops back and forth between the track and the railway control station where the very unFat Controller- Rosario Dawson- charged with adding a bit more depth and interest to the story-line, but she is badly miscast and flounders quite badly in this man's world. Scott drops the ball here, but everything else is precisely what you would expect of him at this stage in his career. There is a lot of excitement, a lot of adrenaline and a lot of entertainment, but it's all so fleeting: there is too little substance, and the characters are so thin that it is hard to care for them (though Washington is as charismatic as ever). I just wish Tony Scott and Denzel Washington would test themselves a bit more- I'm pretty sure Denzel has played the same character for Scott about four times now, with less success each time. Okay, so Harrison Ford made a career out of it for a while, but his characters were at least recognisably different sometimes, and often even changed their moods- but it isn't working for Washington at the minute and he needs something meatier to get his chops around. Unstoppable is all well and good to an end, but it is utterly forgettable, and flawed in comparison to both men's former glories. While I enjoyed the fact that I could check my brain out to a certain extent, I still need to feel something about the characters and the situation (and tagging "Based on a True Story" onto it just wont cut it), so while there is enough here to momentarily distract and divert, there isn't enough to make it any more than momentary.

Quality

The 1080p transfer is very reasonable, unblemished by any imperfections, with clarity and contrast ranking high. Likewise detail is good, and the slightly washed-out palette is as vibrant as can be expected when there is such an obvious lack of primaries to play with. But in such cases it is always impressive to note that black levels are strong and solid, and even more that flesh tones aren't entirely wiped out in proximity with the other muted tones on show. Good work again Fox. There is quite a bit of grain, but that seems to have been a conscious decision rather than a consequence of poor technique, and you can understand the decision in terms of the gritty ambience it adds to the film. Audio is pretty impressive too: dialogue is clear and well prioritized throughout, even when having to compete with heavier background levels, and the musical score is also impressively presented and clear. It is in the action scenes, and shots of the train that the sound transfer really shines, with a nicely bombastic mix accompanying the visuals and adding to the building tensions of the story.

Extras

Unstoppable chugs onto Blu-ray with a fairly good selection of extras, some good, some pretty obligatory, but the highlight is definitely the Tracking the Story audio track, which collects pre-recorded conversations between Tony Scott and script-writer Mark Bomback as they discuss scenes and their development. This track certainly easily outstrips the director commentary offered by Scott on his own, as he seems unable to translate his directing energy into anything like the kind of charisma needed to make these commentaries work. The Fastest Track, a thirty minute Making Of is also excellent, offering a great deal of insight into the production of the film. Audio Commentary with Director Tony Scott Audio Track: "Tracking the Story: 'Unstoppable' Script Development" Featurette: "The Fastest Track: Unleashing 'Unstoppable'" (30 mins) Featurette: "Derailed: Anatomy of a Scene" (10 mins) Featurette: "Hanging Off the Train: Stunt Work" (14 mins) Featurette: "On the Rails: A Conversation with the Director and Cast" (13 mins) Theatrical Trailers (HD) €“ In addition to the movie's original theatrical trailer, previews for 'Love and Other Drugs,' 'Street Kings 2: Motor City,' '127 Hours,' 'Machete,' and 'Casino Jack' are included on the disc. Digital Copy €“ A second disc houses a digital copy of the film, which can be transferred to portable players via iTunes or Windows Media Player. And if you have the app pocket BLU,, you can do the transfer wirelessly. Digital Copy "How To" (4 mins) Step-by-step tutorial will take you through the process for both iTunes and Windows Media Player. BD-Live €“ Including an exclusive featurette focusing on the film's pyrotechnics (can either be streamed or downloaded). Live Lookup- "up-to-date actor filmographies and information from IMDb Trailers for other Fox releases via the Fox online portal. Unstoppable is released on Blu-ray today.
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