You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: Tony Scott's "Unstoppable"

The Ferroni Brigade

"Oh yeah, Tony Scott—he's good," says even Lav Diaz, currently residing in Vienna's Ferronian headquarters, and further proof rushes into cinemas with Unstoppable (and to home systems with the highly recommended BFI unearthing of his 1970 medium-length feature Loving Memory on DVD/Blu-Ray). Intriguingly, after the delirious triple whammy of Man on FireDomino and Déjà vuUnstoppaple now forms a diptych with its minor, but still underrated predecessor The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 of almost straightforward suspense filmmaking: But while the remake of Joseph Sargeant's still-splendid 1974 New York crime picture The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (together they make a for a great, entertaining double feature lesson about changes of a city and the corresponding zeitgeist mentality) was centered around a train standing still, Unstoppable is predicated on a constant increase of speed. As such, it is both an expertly pared-down exercise in pure orchestration of tension as well as a distilliation of pure Tony Scott style—instead of the cubist, postmodern formal explosions of the three earlier crisis zone films (which at times suggested visual companions to the literature of Pynchon and DeLillo, not to mention to avantgarde sensibilities like those of Pat O'Neill), here Scott's expressionist Action Painting effects serve as punctuations and accentuations of superbly handled, old-school suspense dramaturgy.

Still, Unstoppable can be hardly faulted for directorial understatement: What the recurring slow arc was to Oshima Nagisa's Gohatto, those mighty camera sweeps are in Unstoppable—the basic movement for exploring social and personal relations in a situation of imminent breakdown. Since the early phantom rides, cinema has had a close relation to trains, and the tension generated almost automatically by the interplay of claustrophobic interiors and acceleration through a vast landscape particularly has been particulary fertile territory for visual exploits. Scott, like Jacques Rivette always upfront about his willingness to integrate influences (some call it stealing), hews not towards the virtuoso indoor space arrangements of Richard Fleischer's ultra-tight The Narrow Margin or Anthony Mann's excitingly moody The Tall Target, but closer to two of the genre's finest outdoor assaults: Robert Aldrich's perfect action picture Emperor of the North Pole and Andrei Konchalvsky's existential Kurosawa adaptation Runaway Train. The latter title even serves as recurring headline in the Fox News reports that accompany the story line, guaranteeing a level-headed approach to information: the audience knows just as much as the protagonists, Scott's stalwart lead Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, demoted from Captain Kirk to conductor rookie assigned to Denzel's veteran, who has just received his layoff notice after 28 years of diligent service.

Less expected than Scott's reliably successful staging of action sequences is the strong social undercurrent—then again, maybe not, if one considers that Tony Scott is one of the rare Hollywood directors today always attentive to issues of class (divide). Unstoppable is a paean to proletarian heroes willing to sacrifice even their lives in the line of duty (and beyond), as they try to catch up with an out-of-control-train heading towards disaster. As such, it is a rarity in the current tinseltown output, even if the character backgrounds are sketchy rather than in-depth: a grid to which the rousing spectacle is attached. So, inbetween breathtaking stunts and (mostly enjoyably analog) train pulverizations, the description of a current mood and economic situation rears its head. Lives are out of joint, with securities breaking down and the future looking black, dracula-black: Almost all interactions seem to be contaminated by unspoken irritations, escalating class differences chief among them. Sure, in classical movie terms, Unstoppable follows the proletarian action template to its typical conclusion: the optimism, the willingness to fight back, the indefatigable spirit of the people saves the day—it's an idea of utopia, but is it really a happy ending? Of course, with Scott's packed, powerfully fragmented style, certain developments at times may feel like populist gestures, but there is an insistence that indicates a moral dimension. After all, consider that Tony, having sent Denzel into purgatory (Man of Fire) and heaven (Déjà vu), now for the second time in a row releases Denzel back to life, and as in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 it is deeply uncertain whether that counts for an easy solution. Keep in mind that the last laugh in Unstoppable, capping the of the what-became-of-them-montage, may actually just be the most bitter insight in the film. (In the words of Homer Simpson: "It's funny 'cause it's true.") In a year where the supposed hopefuls of Lalaland are given ample space fro their brain-in-the-blender-movies, ranging from plain ridiculous (Aronofsky's Black Swan) to ridiculously overwrought (Nolan's Inception) to plain overwrought (Fincher's facebook film), it's mostly up to the old pros to show that major moviemaking with a conscience is still possible, at the risk of being ridiculed: Thus, Unstoppable will probably join Joel Schumacher's Twelve, Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables and Machete by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis as one of the few commercial American movies of 2010 that actually count.

Signed for the Ferroni Brigade
the other first secretary
Christoph Huber

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