A runaway train carrying a cargo of toxic chemicals pits an engineer (Denzel Washington) and his conductor (Chris Pine) in a race against time. They're chasing the runaway train in a separate locomotive and need to bring it under control before it derails on a curve and causes a toxic spill that will decimate a town.

Runaway train thriller wisely stays on the rails.

Despite being about a runaway train that’s menacingly filmed from low angles, as if it’s an armoured predator in search of prey, Unstoppable may be the most contained and sedate feature seasoned filmmaker Tony Scott has cut in years. The movie, both literally and figuratively, stays on the rails, and that sense of geographic certainty means that the director’s many annoying stylistic tropes – slow-motion, excessive smoke, stock degradation and disorientating edits – barely have a chance to take hold; it’s (thankfully) like the distracting visual excess of Domino and Man on Fire never happened.

Inspired by true events that occurred, probably without near so many emergency vehicles, on the Ohio rail system in 2001, Unstoppable is essentially a film about the folly of containment. Once a corner cutting shunting yard driver (Ethan Suplee) gets out of the barely moving freight train to change a point, without correctly setting the safety controls, and then can’t get back on, virtually nothing can be done to hold back the slowly accelerating vehicle, which naturally has a cargo that includes explosive chemicals and a looming impact point in a populated locale.

Mindful of the engine’s expense, the rail company’s management initial attempts to secure the runaway train fail, and the company in turn can’t contain a mid-level yard marshal, Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), and the crew of another freight train, engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and conductor Will Coulson (Chris Pine), from planning a pursuit after they just escape a head-on collision. The film’s philosophy, suitably Scott-like, is that half measures don’t work. Fittingly, the production generally sticks to real trains on genuine rails, with just one noticeable need to resort to CGI.

Like Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire, Barnes and Coulson run their diesel engine in reverse, doing everything backwards as they try to hook on to the end of the runaway. Segmented on either side of the control cabin, the two leads cycle through a competent if predictable arc of meeting that morning, rubbing each other up the wrong, and slowly establishing a rapport once disaster looms. They swap life details – Barnes is a single father of teenage daughters, Coulson anxiously separated from his wife and young son – and the actors never overplay their hand, with Washington’s mannerisms textbook: the sharp glance, the half smile, the quietly challenging 'well alright" that holds on the last syllable.

Various themes are suggested, from the corporate weighing up of lives over assets to a generational divide between the two pursuers, but Scott prefers to annoyingly drive home the story’s development by persistently running footage (unrealistically) shot from pursuing news choppers, complete with surprisingly well-informed but unnecessary television anchor commentary. 'Will Coulson is down," yells a reporter when the conductor almost falls between carriages, but anyone watching already knows that.

That outbreak of dumbing down aside, Unstoppable is a solidly conceived and executed adventure-thriller. The creators, like the two protagonists, are just professionals mindful of doing a solid job. It’s an example many in Hollywood could learn from.

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1 hour 38 min
In Cinemas 06 January 2011,
Wed, 06/08/2011 - 11