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

"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

On the one hand, it’s nice to see a Tony Scott film finally getting love from the critics. On the other, it’s a little infuriating to see every review label it ‘pure escapism’ and ‘brainless but entertaining,’ things like that. Don’t think the socioeconomic commentary in it is particularly convincing or effective? Fine. I do, but don’t begrudge a dissenting opinion. Don’t see it at all, or are just unwilling to engage with it? Try harder.
I’m not sure how much “socioeconomic commentary” the film has, but I did like the socioecomomic-geographic detail of the film.
I’m glad to see you putting in a good word for Machete as well, Christoph. A severely underrated film, and a definite turn for the better for Rodriguez after Sin City and Planet Terror. (His kiddie films however have held strong.)
Sorry, but the list of movies that “count” is pretty silly, and it pretty much demeans all of the interesting points that have come before it. Everything on that list is as subtle as a hammer to the head. Come on TWELVE?
I dunno, Glenn. The Expendables was good, Michael, above, liked the Rodriguez; I vouch for the Scott…with that kind of average I’d bet Wall Street and Twelve are worth watching.
“I’m not sure how much “socioeconomic commentary” the film has, but I did like the socioecomomic-geographic detail of the film.” Amen. This movie made me fall back in love with the faded glory of Pennsylvania coal country, around where my folks both grew up. The film’s a clear love letter to A) that particular countryside, B) the Fox News aesthetic, and finally C) helicopter shots, whether inside or outside that aesthetic. Even interior shots mimic helicopter shots. And the final shot literally gives helicopters a shout-out. All that said, I’d agree that WALL STREET and UNSTOPPABLE are equals: they each yield some great moments from their old pros (UNSTOPPABLE particularly in it’s final action-dense half-hour), but that’s as far as I’d go. Watched but can’t imagine ever rewatching (especially outside an over-the-top, huge-screen theatrical setting).
Nice thoughts, Ben, thanks for sharing. Love letter to Fox News aesthetic indeed. Or did Tony help invent that aesthetic?
The world…may never know. Definitely an exchange of ideas going on between them. I also felt a simultaneous attraction and repellence to the Fox News flow-chart reiterations of plot-points. The action editing in UNSTOPPABLE is in fact admirably clear, especially relative to most contemporary action editing, making the graphic-based breakdowns redundant. Why the “tell-don’t-show” philosophy when you’re already confidently exhibiting “show-don’t-tell" success? But then I started feeling my old DOMINO headache throbbing deep inside my brain, and it occurred to me that perhaps the whole thing was another inside joke. And, really, that crude CGI depiction of the scattering cars blowing up all the fuel tankers at the infamous ‘Stanton Elevated Curve’ was priceless. My buddy and I actually high-fived in the theater (for the record, he found the movie to be unequivocally awesome). Anyways, it sure is nice to see someone actually using colors other than blue, gray, and brown in his compositions. And Denzel’s acting breathes genuine life into an otherwise hackneyed character, miraculously fully inflating a role that must have been particularly two-dimensional on paper.
Danny – Worth watching and essential are very different beasts. And in no universe is TWELVE actually worth watching.
Ben: Besides the elevated curve graphic, there’s also a moment where one of those interchangable reporters is delivering some exposition in a tiny frame-within-the-frame, shot in hyperactive handheld style that not even the crappiest local news outfit would tolerate for a simple talking head…and then Scott tops it by suddenly cutting within that frame from a medium shot to a close-up, as if said outfit also had two cameras pointlessly trained on this guy and he was somehow looking directly into both of them. That almost got as big a laugh out of me as the train graphic. I can’t remember if this was the same reporter who said something along the lines of “…and they’re gonna try to stop this son of a bitch”, but if it wasn’t, then that’s the third awesome Unstoppable fake newscast moment.
That’s right! That quote was gold. Great description of the other moment too.
“Sorry, but the list of movies that “count” is pretty silly, and it pretty much demeans all of the interesting points that have come before it. Everything on that list is as subtle as a hammer to the head. Come on TWELVE?” I don’t know, when did “subtlety” become necessary for worthy or essential cinema? Thank you, Mubi, for allowing the Ferronian Brigade a place for their writing. I missed Olaf’s annual report of Udine, so two articles from the Brigade in a short amount of time makes up for so much. There are so many films released this year that I wish they would go in depth about (that list of essential commercial cinema, Sono, Miike, Hellman, Wakamatsu, Eastwood, Hark), but I guess one must be patient! Still waiting for the time when Nicole Brenez and Adrian Martin eventually make their marks here :)
Nicole: Subtlety isn’t a necessary trait for worthy or essential cinema. I never said that. But these films are sledgehammers to the brain with no other purpose than to pulverize you with extreme aesthetics, and for me, in no way essential to the current conversation on genre filmmaking. Also, the points that are made favor a certain brazen simplicity of filmmaking. I mean look at that list. It’s all pumped up machinations of American manliness that end up going nowhere fast. But I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, because MUBI celebrated CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE earlier in the year. Go figure.
As noted in the Tony Scott thread in our forums Glenn, I personally think there’s a lot of interesting cinema going on in this and his other movies. Sledgehammers to the eye might be a better description, I don’t think many people have really used their brains to think about those movies.
That’s stupid. CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE was terrible. Everyone knows that the first CRANK is the masterpiece.
Better a place where Crank: High Voltage and The Expendables are celebrated than a place where Christopher Nolan is treated like the Second Coming (otherwise known as my personal vision of hell), I say :)
Danny – You know I’ve always respected your defense of Tony Scott. You, unlike other film writers looking to be contrarians, actually have interesting things to say about him. I think DEJA VU is a fascinating film, so I see the potential there. I’m not meaning to reduce his films in any way, but for me, the pomp, circumstance, and stupidity of UNSTOPPABLE the narrative is hard to reconcile with it’s obviously interesting stylistics. It’s a problem I have with many of his films. Hopefully that makes sense. Nicole: You didn’t even address my arguments, but instead made further assumptions. Did anyone on this forum say Nolan was the second coming? Once again, no!
An out of control train doesn’t seem that stupid to me. Narratively, this is probably the least implausible film he’s made in a while.
But the representation of how that train gets out of control, the cliched imbecile that’s also over weight = pretty stupid if you ask me. Also, the narrative doesn’t just include a runaway train. It also pertains to all of the idiotic side plots, like the expectedly anti-humanistic corporation, the daughters working at hooters, and Pine’s wife who is completely clueless even when she’s clued in. Also, the news coverage thing wears itself out in about five minutes. I’ll take the lunacy of DEJA VU over the “plausibility” of UNSTOPPABLE any day.
Unfortunately, Glenn, I am not obliged to address your arguments, and frankly I don’t feel like doing so. You already appear to have made up your mind about the kind of “masculine” genre cinema that you are railing against. So what do you mean when you mention the current conversation on genre filmmaking? Are you talking about the prevalence of 3D? James Cameron? Michael Bay? Nolan as the antithesis? Christoph makes it clear that they are talking about commercial (Hollywood) cinema, not genre. So what is commercial cinema in 2010 so far? Salt, Inception, The Social Network, sequels, animated films. Aside from box office receipts, do many of these movies matter? What do they espouse? Glortified technology, reliable franchising, box office over all else? Christoph has made a case for socially conscious filmmaking in spite of commercialism. Daniel has mentioned the socioeconomic-geographic detail of Unstoppable. In the film, those who prevent the impending environmental disaster of the train crash are not from the company i.e. big business (the plan of the train executives fail) or government institutions (the police abort their plan) but are simply working class folk. I do not live in America, but I am sure that having working class heroes in a film (rather than the superhuman or purely fantastic) has some sort of resonance in these times. Personally, the difference between the movies that are listed as those that “count” and, say, Nolan, Cameron, Wright is that for the latter three the manner in which they deal with commercial cinema is to inflate it with aesthetic self-importance and encase it in closed aesthetic systems of the fantastic (to quote Olaf), scrabbling for cinematic legacy or future cult status. Scott simply presents his genre cinema as genre cinema, cliches, flaws, limitations included, but located somewhere actual and real, attuned to where it is. And if Unstoppable deals with the proletarian, then the Wall Street sequel deals with corporate America, Machete with illegal immigration. Anyway, it’s late where I am, forgive my oversimplified statements. I haven’t even talked about the myth-making or hero-making of these movies in contrast to the rest of commercial cinema. By the way, I was simply comparing MUBI to many of the places out there where cineastes congregate and seem to already have placed Nolan on a pedestal.
Nicole: Sorry to sound a bit testy in regards to Scott and the films on that list. I just feel strongly that they do not represent the best “American” films have to offer, even during a down year like 2010. I agree this year has been a tough one for the USA, but Fincher and Scorsese at the least have delved into rich, if not familiar territory with fascinating films. THE SOCIAL NETWORK and SHUTTER ISLAND do matter beyond whatever economic or social conventions you mentioned before, and I’d venture to say they will be talked about for a long time to come. Danny will probably attest that it seems like we get into this conversation every time a Tony Scott movie is released. I have liked him as a filmmaker before (DEJA VU), but his films for the most part oversimplify the elements of American experience certain critics have heralded as virtues. And just because a commercial American film “deals” with these issues, like MACHETE, WALL ST. 2 and UNSTOPPABLE, doesn’t mean they do it well, or even say something substantial about the argument. Stone’s film is a pompous, bloated slide show of cityscapes, crane shots, and melodrama that says nothing complex about the current economic crisis. For a more poignant, poetic look at such themes I’d throw RAMONA AND BEEZUS into the conversation. And MACHETE is so carelessly put together that it’s commentary on illegal immigration is almost an afterthought. But anyways, to each his/her own I guess. And your statements are not oversimplified in the least. Once again, sorry to get all moody on the Nolan comment. I didn’t want to be type cast as an angry fan boy or anything. Cheers.
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“Shutter Island” is not the film to trounce out in an effort to submerge Scott’s film…and I don’t even like contemporary Scott cinema, so that shows you how little I think of Scorsese’s effort. I’d take a mindless action genre film over “Shutter Island” any day (not calling “Unstoppable” mindless because I haven’t seen it yet). On another note, I’m happy to hear some enthusiasm for “Machete”. I’m eager to see it and count me among those who think Rodriguez is worth talking about — and has been since the beginning of his career.
So it’s not the film to use because you don’t like it? Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.
This Tony Scott, he angers up the blood!
Hey Glenn, it’s all right. At least this conversation hasn’t devolved into a shouting match yet :) But I do think that it isn’t that these films have something profound to say about these issues, it’s simply that they are conscious of these issues at all in the realm of commercial cinema and have their own way of talking about them. This kind of blockbuster, noisy cinema has always been about myth-making, hero-worship, arguments for a kind of idealized, aggrandized, romantic protagonism. The fact that a handful are located in a real social and cultural context is a contrast to much of what is out there. Anyway, for the most part I look to these films for their excesses in style. Christoph has always advocated this kind of big, masculine, barbaric, overdone cinema, so I guess it’s a matter of taste. Oh, and I actually like the Fincher. I haven’t seen the Scorsese yet, but I am very interested in doing so. Now that you’ve recommended Ramona and Beezus, I’ll be sure to see it as well. I’ve always liked the books. Daniel, at least the blood isn’t liable to spill just yet :)
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“Shutter Island” isn’t the film to use because the two don’t compare (and yes, because I think it’s terrible!). I doubt it will be talked about for a long time to come. Scorsese hasn’t made a film of consequence since last century. Then again, I also doubt “Unstoppable” will be talked about for a long time to come. But it does seem like Scott is enjoying a critical revival for the time being. People are buying his stock and selling Scorsese’s fast. Me, I’d rather keep out of the speculation market.
Regardless of my personal critical reaction to UNSTOPPABLE, I don’t know how far critical revival will take Scott if it’s not going hand in hand with commercial revival. And both of the Tony films I’ve seen theatrically in the past 5 years (DOMINO and UNSTOPPABLE) have been in an essentially empty cinema. I gather UNSTOPPABLE didn’t perform that well this weekend from the few articles I’ve glanced at as well as from the audience I attended with…while BOTH screens of THE SOCIAL NETWORK next door were sold out hours in advance of their screenings Saturday and Sunday.
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Since when did critical revival need to go hand-in-hand with commercial revival?
UNSTOPPABLE did as well as PELHAM did, which was solid.
Nicole: I actually completely agree with you on those points. It’s why I saw all of the listed films in the theater. They are at least trying to address certain aspects of American experience most big budget films don’t. Which is why I was so disappointed none of them resonated with me. Bobby: In regards to SHUTTER ISLAND, it’s all opinion at this point. One man’s trash heap is another’s pile of gold. And for me, box office has nothing to do with Scott’s importance or lack of. Danny: My blood may have simmered, but thankfully it didn’t boil. And I have too much respect for this site to ever let it spill!

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