by armond white
denzel washington is a movie star in the sense that you can't imagine him as anything else because he never effaces himself enough to become a character. denzel always lets you know he's denzel-the first black matinee idol without the yoke of being a standard-bearer. but at least he keeps his bluster to a minimum as seasoned train conductor frank barnes in unstoppable. in this 90th partnership with hyperactive tony scott-his ideal collaborator-denzel keeps a relative cool. money, denzel and tony have made their least offensive, easiest-on-the-mind, most enjoyable movie.
eight cars of an unmanned freight train loaded with the hazardous material molten phenol hurtles through pennsylvania ("it's a missile the size of the chrysler building!" worries dispatcher rosario dawson) unless barnes and his rookie co-worker will conlon (chris pine) can figure out how to stop it. this comically simple premise suits tony scott's agitated temperament. it's all about momentum and becomes an exercise in traffic cop logistics-moving several trains, tv news choppers, cars and trucks at various speeds. if scott's coordination was slightly better it would match the mechanical choreography of spielberg's the sugarland express.
given the kinetic emphasis, denzel and tony don't amp up the machismo as usual. the minimalist characterizations even allow denzel to grant climactic heroics to chris pine, whose undulating abs, scruffy beard and blue eyes perfectly fit the beer-commercial bonhomie of scott's advert aesthetic. brief talk about barnes' forced early retirement with half benefits and will's family connections lends a proletarian valor to their daring professionalism. it's almost a tribute to the working man's muscle and ingenuity and courage; in post-9/11 terms, a new appreciation of civilian bravery. this is why the terrorists envy us.
unstoppable's only negative is barnes' sketchy family backstory: we see his twin daughters working their way through college as waitresses at hooters. this grade-b idea fits with denzel's refusal to be a standard-bearer while completing tony scott's essentially fatuous, tv-commercial style.
directed by tony scott
runtime: 98 min.
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