Although some critics are quick to dismiss all of his movies in one fell swoop, the truth is that there are really two different kinds of Tony Scott movies. The first kind, embodied by 'Top Gun,' 'True Romance,' 'Crimson Tide,' and "Déjà Vu,' is a stylish but still somehow at least vaguely thoughtful adventure that not only allows actors to act, but occasionally challenges them to be their best, well, movie star possible. The second, represented by 'Days of Thunder,' 'The Last Boy Scout,' 'The Fan,' 'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,' and now 'Unstoppable,' is an empty celebration of style that bludgeons or numbs most viewers while encouraging stars to play to their most comfortable strengths.
Basically, 'Unstoppable' is an onslaught of visual excess and nonsensical storytelling that believes it's a credible drama, which is why even by the most forgiving standards it's still awful.
Scott's now-five-time leading man Denzel Washington plays Frank, an aging train engineer forced to indoctrinate a young conductor named Will, played by 'Star Trek' alumnus Chris Pine, into his company's work rotation. As Frank puts Will through his paces, correcting mistakes big and small while offering his displeasure at Will's seeming disinterest in the job, on the other side of town a series of events set a train underway with no one at the controls. As a corporate executive (Kevin Dunn) and a local supervisor (Rosario Dawson) maintain a tenuous partnership in their efforts to slow down the locomotive and protect the company's interests, Will and Frank are forced to work together to try and stop it before it crashes into a heavily populated area where its lethal cargo will cause a massive accident.
Suffice to say that despite humankind's best efforts, accidents do occasionally happen, and it's probably healthy to view them with some degree of empathy and forgiveness. But as a moviegoer, it seems unfair to have to watch them play out, especially when they may potentially result in a loss of human life, and in the case of 'Unstoppable,' the reason for the train's trajectory is an escalating series of bad decisions, if not outright incompetence. The fact that the two guys who basically set the train on its destructive path regard their malfeasance with a 'what are you gonna do?' sort of ambivalence is so maddening in and of itself that a postscript indicating that they are now only dubiously employed is a small comfort, especially after watching two hours of other people risking their lives to correct a mistake that may take the lives of many, many others.
Meanwhile, the film front-loads its characters with an equally disappointing collection of clichéd backgrounds and conflicts, including (but not limited to) one employee working so much he forgets the birthday of a family member, another employee waiting on an important call that may help get his life back on track, the friction produced between youthful entitlement and wizened superiority, and the general resentment held by a generation of workers rendered outdated by the successors who casually replace or eliminate them. It's (dramatically) understandable why the two men at the center of the story occasionally butt heads, but do we need another blue-collar borderline retiree grousing about downsizing in order to provide conflict that could come from the characters' personalities – that is, if they were better written?
Scott works through these ideas like a sausage-maker, throwing anything that resembles subtext or substance into the mix in the hopes it will provide a little dramatic sustenance. Simultaneously, however, he occupies himself with a cacophony of visual and narrative motifs, including a media blitz of helicopters, news reports and commentators who relentlessly explain or clarify the jiggling, incomprehensible images that feel about as cohesive as a bag of confetti.
Finally, and almost offensively, the film claims that it was "inspired by true events," which is a Hollywood euphemism for "we made a bunch of stuff up that we thought would be interesting, and probably something kinda like it happened." (Admittedly, a recent story in the Philadelphia Enquirer recounts a runaway train scenario that does closely resemble the one depicted here.) Quite frankly, it seems like audiences would prefer if it wasn't, because nobody adapts true stories into blockbusters if they have an unhappy ending, and then they might be able to predict with a little less certainty how things turn out. But the only thing about its telling that does seem accurate is the way that the news media covering the story, and indeed the film itself, massively sensationalizes something that could have been a modest, respectable demonstration of heroism.
Ironically, Tony Scott feels like one of the only directors working today who consistently works on projects that feature adults – not to mention appeal to them. But when you watch a movie like this, it seems like the byproduct of using grown-up resources without the maturity to know what to do with them. As a result, 'Unstoppable' is just a raucous barrage of images, a visual onslaught that contains the worst of that second kind of Tony Scott movies. In fact, it's so bombastic and yet so empty that it almost makes you wish there was no kind of Tony Scott movies, at least not until – and pardon the pun - the director stops long enough to think about pairing all of that style with a little substance.