Saturday, 27 November 2010

Unstoppable; Of course, it does actually stop.

On the way into the movie I was on the phone to my sister and I'd already forgotten what the film was called, even before I'd watched it. It's some movie, I said, about a big explodey train running out of control. Oh yes, she said, I know the one you mean.

Unstoppable isn't actually that bad; for a Tony Scott film it's almost low-key. Watching the movie you realise the trailer is a terrible cheat; most of the thrilling looking crises which are set up in the trailer are complete anti-climaxes in the actual film. I thought at first the problem was that the movie's based on a true story and Scott didn't want to throw anything in which was grossly out of line with the real incident. Then I looked up the real incident and realised that it's just lousy pacing and poor plot construction.

First up, what happens in the movie? We meet the two main characters, Denzel Washington's veteran and Chris Pine's novice (I have to assume that Tony Scott has Denzel's kids in a fridge somewhere, because it's hard to understand how Scott could otherwise have got Denzel to play a train company employee again after the breathtakingly unnecessary Pelham 123), and see how they don't like each other but are - of course - going to be forced into working together and will bond and blah, just blah. Good thing that Denzel and Pine are charming actors, because this kind of thing is boooooring. Then, with wonderful slapstick, Ethan Supplee manages to let a train get away from him by jumping out of it to change a switch in the train yard but leaving the key in the ignition as it were. The train rolls off and starts moving faster and faster.

Cut to the train yard manager, who for no particularly good reason is played by Rosario Dawson. I wouldn't normally comment on a casting decision like that, but Scott has managed to populate the movie with a cast that look as though they're been hastily carved from potatoes, so it's jarring to have Dawson running the show. Rosario gets to explain to us, the feeble-minded audience, just how bad this could be. We know we're the feeble minded audience, because, for goodness sake, we just handed over some of our own money to watch a Tony Scott film.

Well, it's all terribly bad, but it could be worse. Rosario's got a cunning plan to divert the train into a siding before it does any damage. So she details one of her slacker staff to go and throw the switch for the siding and sends Ethan Supplee (remember, the genius who pulled off the original bonehead mistake, just the guy you'd hire to sort it out) in pursuit of the train to catch up with it. But the train's moving faster that they thought it was. They thought it was just coasting, but Ethan's left the engine running, and it's picking up speed. And in the immortal words of Goose from Mad Max, it's headed straight for population.

Ethan and his only slightly less stupid sidekick head off down the road after the train and make an entirely plausible mess of trying to match speed with a speeding train in a pickup truck on a parallel road. And with that, the train company's run out of easy fixes. Rosario tells her boss to derail the train, which is apparently filled with explodium (or molten phenol, which doesn't even sound like a real thing, but turns out to be somewhat real, though not as dangerous as this). The company's having none of this, and instead cooks up a bizarrely dangerous scheme involving putting a train in front of the runaway so that it will run into the back end and slow down enough so that they can lower an engine driver from a helicopter. While all that's being planned, we have various bits of hijinks with the train running through small villages flattening horseboxes and nearly hitting a train full of school kids. The train full of school kids is supposed to be ironic, I think, but it winds up just looking stupid. It's the company's school train safety train. The idea that a train company in the US would have an outing for kids to learn about train safety by being IN a train just doesn't make any sense at all, except as a mechanism for a movie to put moppets in peril. Which is forgiveable, but the moppets are no sooner in peril than they're back out of it, so it's a complete waste of time which could have been better used.

Anyhow, it fills in the time until the corrupt company bosses can pull off their bonehead move with the train and the helicopter. And it goes super-wrong, as all first plans in all movies do. The slowing-things-down train isn't heavy or powerful enough to slow down the train from in front of it by putting the brakes on, and the helicopter just succeeds in smearing the volunteer engine driver along the top of the runaway engine. Which was only to be expected. There you are, with a train going at 70 miles an hour in open countryside, and you've got a guy you want to lower from a chopper onto it. What do you do, hot shot, what do you do? Well, I'm guessing that you don't hang the poor rube off a hundred feet of rope for no good reason, when for the same money you could match speeds with the train - which is not, after all, in a position to - you know - swerve - and get in close enough that your engine driver could practically step out of the chopper onto the roof of the train instead of swinging round like a yo yo. And you'd probably also warn off the three news choppers swooping in and out of your way. They skimped on these simple steps, with inevitable results. It all goes horribly wrong and the engine driver in the slowing-things-down train is immolated when his train gets blown out of the way by the runaway.

Which is where I get vexed with the whole dumb moppets in peril thing. The helicopter and so on might be stupid, but it's good moviemaking; it looks great and it's carried off well, and it would have been even better if it had had ten minutes of prep. The doomed engine driver is played by David Warshofsky, who's like the Canadian Will Patton, and he gets a little scene at the very beginning to annoy Chris Pine, and then gets all crispy doing the right thing. It would have been so much better to give the actor some more screen time to put some emotional tension into the scene and drop the moppets.

Anyhow, plan A goes horribly wrong, and they move to plan B, which involves trying - at last - to derail the train. Which now looks like a dumb idea, because i) they've run out of unpopulated countryside to try it in and ii) the runaway is now going so fast that the derailing devices aren't likely to work. But evil corporate don't listen to Rosario or Denzel when they point this out, so Denzel has to go rogue with his much simpler plan to reverse up behind the runaway, hook up to it and then it full throttle heading the opposite direction. Corporate are terribly displeased about this, and threaten to fire him, so Denzel reminds them that they already have fired him and he's just working out his notice. I thought THAT cliché was only allowed in cop movies.

Anyhow, the tension's being screwed up to the sticking point at this stage, since the runaway is only minutes away from the derailer an if that fails, it's only a few minutes away from Stanton, and the infamous Stanton curve, which is high over the city, and surrounded by oil storage tanks, and which the runaway will surely fall off if it heads into it at 70 miles an hour. Still just enough time for plan B to be tried, and just before it, Plan A1, which sees the Pennsylvania state police opening fire on the train. A cutaway to a news programme tells us that they were trying to shoot out a fuel cut off switch on the side of the train which would have just made it coast to a halt when the engine stopped drawing fuel. While this seemed monumentally stupid, it did at least answer my question when I first saw the trailer for the movie and wondered why the police were carrying guns into action against a runaway train. Anyhow, as you'd expect, this is a failure, though not quite on the scale it deserves to be. Let's all shoot at the fuel tanks of the train made of explodium really oughtn't to be a bullet point on anyone's contingency plans.

In due turn, the derailing exercise fails, and the last chance left is Denzel and Chris' rogue plan to slow the thing down using a non-stupid idea. Which involves much sparks and running along the top of the train and Chris Pine having to jump from a pick up truck doing 70 miles an hour onto the front of the runaway, and you know, general high jinks and tension of all kinds.

I'm not really giving anything away when I say that this just about works, and they save the day, so that Chris' wife and Denzel's daughters (who all just happen to live in Stanton) are not all turned into charcoal by the explodium train crashing into the explodium storage tanks. And Denzel's getting fired is reversed, and the evil corporate stooges are all fired. But Denzel's daughters DO apparently have to go on working in Hooters to pay for their college tuition.

In reality all, this happened in Ohio countryside, and the runaway train never got above 45 miles an hour, and using a train in reverse seems to have been the first thing which occurred to the train company. The tactic was so successful that it got the train down to 11 mph and a "trainmaster" (which is just the coolest job title I've seen all week) ran along beside it to jump on and switch the engine off. The train did get to be a runaway in exactly the way the movie shows, although the guy it got away from was a 35 year veteran who knew exactly what he was doing, rather than an idiot. And no-one got hurt and there was no real property damage either. Most surprisingly of all, the train crew sent to slow the train down was made up of a veteran and a rookie. So the beginning of the movie is about right, and the end's roughly accurate, and the whole middle of it - well, when they tell you something is inspired by real events, they're really telling you that they made all the exciting stuff up. Except for that bit about the police trying to shoot the fuel switch. That apparently happened. Didn't work any better in real life than it does in the movies.

And in reading up all this I found out the answer to the most frustrating piece of dialogue in the whole movie, when the police ask Rosario why the deadman switch doesn't just stop the train. Rosario flips it off by saying that "there's a wand the driver has to hit, but that's not the point right now". Turns out that trains don't have something as simple as a dead man switch, because they're too easy to defeat. They have a vigilance switch, which you have to hit when it beeps. If you don't, the brakes engage. But the brakes on a train don't do as much to stop it as you'd expect them to - on the real life runaway the engine brakes cut in, but the engine had too much momentum for them, and they just burnt out. So there's that answered.

No comments: