There's a train. Its cars are loaded with toxic chemicals. And no one's driving it as it hurtles toward heavily populated parts of Pennsylvania.
And only Denzel Washington and Chris Pine can chase it down.
That's all there is to Tony Scott's lightning-fast runaway train thriller, Unstoppable — "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building" and two working-class Joes who want to save the day.
But it's enough. With an hour and 35 minutes of heavy metal flying at you and cool, collected old-timer Frank (Washington) and distracted trainee Will (Pine of Star Trek) jumping from one car to another, dodging hazards at rail crossings, this race against the clock works. The director of the limp remake The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 takes a second shot at a railway movie and gets it right this time.
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Frank has decades of experience, so a shuffle of cars here and there on a short stretch of rail shouldn't be a big deal. But others with less of a professional bent made a boo-boo. A train "got away" from them.
"It got away from you?" the boss (Rosario Dawson) cracks. "It's a train, not a chipmunk."
Alarms are sounded. The big boss (Kevin Dunn) gets grumpy; the federal inspector (Kevin Corrigan) drops pearls of wisdom about the physics of trains. A busload of school kids on an excursion is out there. And the "coaster" is no longer coasting.
Scott's film touches on the American workplace (understaffed) and work force (overworked, facing layoffs). But this is a straight ticking-clock thriller, with the usual Scott trademarks: punchy dialogue and men doing what needs to be done. Oh, and Frank is a proud father of two Hooters Girls working their way through college; Will has "issues" at home.
It's not as breakneck as it might have been. There are conventional pauses in the action while Frank and Will talk about their lives, their problems. But Washington and Pine have an easy rapport that makes the soap opera elements go by easily. Mark Bomback's script has an easy way with the jargon and a feel for the work: "In training, they give you an F. Out here in the real world, you get killed."
And Scott never lets this express go off the rails.