If you've read the synopsis above, you pretty much know the long and short of Tony Scott's "Unstoppable". Based on the real-life story of an unmanned train that went careening down the tracks in Ohio after a railroad employee failed to set the air brakes while switching tracks, this dramatization of that little incident amps up the thrills for a white-knuckle 100-minute non-stop roller-coaster ride- just think of it as an adrenaline shot that pretty much grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go from start to finish.
The setup is plain and simple- on one end of the track is rookie conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine), paired with veteran railroad engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) on his first day of work. Frank and Will each have their own share of family problems and each bear their own reservations of the other- so there's a fair bit of tension between the two of them as they begin their shift, especially since Will is seen as the company's new blood employed to replace the older workers (including Frank) who have one by one been forced to retire.
Then on the other end of the track, some bumbling employee gets off a train in an attempt to switch tracks, puts the stick in throttle and sends the massive locomotive whizzing down rural Pennsylvania towards the more heavily populated areas. Corporate- represented by Kevin Dunn's VP of operations- and local ground operations- represented by Rosario Dawson's rail commander- can't agree how to stop it, the former as usual weighing the options in terms of dollars and cents on the stock market.
It is only halfway through the film that Frank and Will cross paths with said locomotive nicknamed "The Beast" and come out with a plan to link their engine to the back to it and gun it in the opposite direction. Tony Scott spends the first half of the film doing two things- one, emphasising the working-class backgrounds of Frank and Will; and two, laying out bare the peril of the situation. Both are deftly played for the nail-biting finish, which is guaranteed to leave you wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
By portraying Frank and Will's as everyday men with real concerns over livelihood and family, Scott and "Die Hard 4.0" writer Mark Bomback make the point loud and clear later on that that real-life heroes are really just ordinary men who do extraordinary acts of courage in the face of danger and calamity. Indeed, though it is apparent that both Frank and Will are the heroes of the story, playing down the chest-thumping heroics of their act proves to be a wise choice in painting them as regular people who rose to the occasion to save the lives of thousands, including their families and loved ones.
Scott instead stresses the magnitude of the occasion in repeated failed attempts at halting "The Beast", each and every attempt highlighting the destructive force of the locomotive at that weight and at that speed. Choosing to film the high-octane action sequences in a more straightforward realistic manner than his usual flashy visual style (i.e. jump cuts, shaky camera, zooms and colour-correction) also lends the proceedings an authentic and an altogether genuinely riveting feel, further underlining the gravity of their heroic act. Special mention goes to the sound design of the film, which in a proper theatre with good sound system will set the hall rumbling with the sound of the locomotive.
Because much of the focus of the film is on "The Beast", more screen time seems to be dedicated to the train than to our two lead actors, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Still, the ever-reliable Denzel Washington delivers a low-key but no less commanding performance as the dutiful railroad worker Frank. He also shares a nice buddy chemistry with Chris, and it's interesting to watch how the initial tension between the two gives way to mutual cooperation, understanding and finally respect.
Unfolding at a breathless pace, Tony Scott makes the most of a simple premise to deliver a relentlessly exciting action movie that plays like "Speed" on tracks. It wastes no time in getting to the meat of the action, and doesn't once let up right until the end of the thrill ride. In between, you get the story of two men, folks like you and I, who display an outstanding act of heroism when faced with imminent danger. Precisely because they are so relatable, "Unstoppable" becomes so much more gripping, and you'd be advised that this high-octane action movie is just the adrenaline fix you need for the week.