You’ve probably seen quite a few movies come and go from multiplexes
that claim to be based on true stories, but did you know that there’s
actually a difference between “Based on…” and “Inspired by…”? See,
the label “Based on a true story” means that the work in question is a
direct adaptation of actual events. It means that the filmmakers
actively set out to depict their subject matter as faithfully and
authentically as possible. The “Inspired by true events” label is a lot
more gray, usually implying that considerable liberties were taken
during the film-making process. This is a convenient way for studios and
filmmakers to claim that their stories are true while simultaneously
avoiding libel suits.
The point being that when Unstoppable proudly claims to be
“Inspired by true events” even before the credits roll, that leaves me
with a whole lot of questions. Specifically, I want to know exactly how
many liberties were taken in the depiction of railway employees. This is
a very important issue because if the railroad workers in real life are
anything like the railroad workers in this movie, then we are all well
and truly fucked.
This film is hamstrung pretty much immediately because there are so
few characters in this film who are relatable or interesting. I’d be
more inclined to care about the people involved if this crisis was some
freak accident, but no: The runaway train full of toxic and flammable
chemicals was completely avoidable. The guy responsible was
simply an incompetent slob. His partner didn’t help because he’s an
incompetent prick. The railway workers who saw the train start rolling
and didn’t even lift a finger to try and help are a bunch of incompetent
jerkoffs. The lead welder is called in, but he’s no help because he’s
an incompetent douchebag. Naturally, word of this eventually reaches a
corporate exec responsible for the company’s bottom line, but he’s…
well, you get the idea.
To be fair, it’s not like the railroad company is entirely full of
morons. We’ve also got some genius who somehow magically knows
everything about hazardous chemicals, train engineering and train
routes, but he contributes nothing to the plot. Rosario Dawson plays a
railway manager, but of course her sensible and intelligent suggestions
are totally ignored by the corporate execs. And then, of course, there
are our two heroes.
Denzel Washington is, was and always will be an astonishing actor.
Chris Pine is making a nice career for himself on roles that are young,
reckless and charismatic. Washington plays a character with 28 years of
experience on the tracks, while Pine’s character is on his first day and
probably got the job through family connections. Together, they make
half of the movie almost unbearable. Seriously, all of their scenes in
the first half are just “Washington: *passive-aggressively acting gruff
while insulting Pine for his sloppy work*,” then “Pine: *whining about
how Washington is a crazy old hard-ass*,” repeat ad nauseum. I can’t
begin to describe how unpleasant it was to be stuck in the cab of a
train with these two bickering jackasses, and their clumsy attempts at
characterization were almost as bad.
I should also mention that the first half of the movie carries no
tension whatsoever. This is primarily because we all know that the train
has to keep rolling until Pine and Washington can get to it during the
climax. However, we also know that all the plans at stopping the train
can’t work because — you guessed it! — everyone in charge is
repeatedly shown to be a hopeless imbecile.
But then, about halfway through the movie, Pine and Washington are in
a conference call with Dawson and the corporate exec. This marks the
exact point where Pine and Washington turn into likable characters who
finally start working as a cohesive team. Meanwhile, Dawson effectively
takes the movie away from corporate incompetence, giving Washington the
clearance to start using his expertise while Pine acts as a capable and
fearless set of extra hands.
The second half of this movie — especially the climax — was loaded
with tension. Once our heroes finally get within spitting distance of
the runaway train, it really is anyone’s guess just when and how the
train will be stopped, in addition to what the costs and casualties will
be. The movie does unfortunately cheat at times, with previously-failed
actions that somehow work and a brake that Washington inexplicably kept
in his back pocket until just the right moment. Still, the climax is
very well-shot and edited with a loud and bombastic score that works in
spite of itself.
Alas, the climax is followed by a tedious denouement and the movie
closes with a text epilogue. That’s right: It’s not enough that our
characters all get the exact comeuppance you’d think they would, but
we’re also denied the pleasure of seeing it happen. Bullshit.
I’ll grant that the film is technically very well-made. The visuals
are a touch wonky at times and the score doesn’t always work with what’s
happening onscreen, but they’re both still serviceable. The big problem
is with the screenplay. Not only does this film have so few likable
characters, but it’s also rife with bad dialogue, half-baked character
development and potentially relevant themes (union workers vs.
non-union, old workers replaced by new ones, corporate layoffs, etc.)
that are forgotten instantly.
Unstoppable is a misfire, plain and simple. The premise is
solid, the climax is awesome and the cast is very good, but all are
hopelessly weighed down by bad screenwriting and unforgivably stupid
characters. This isn’t exactly “blight on the face of cinema” bad, but
it’s definitely bad enough that you should consider taking your action
movie dollars elsewhere.