Sunday, February 13, 2011

Unstoppable - Home Video Review

Release Date: November 12, 2010

After deciding to see this films opening weekend competition, Skyline, and hearing all the buzz it was getting I have to admit that at the time I wish I had chosen differently. But now...after seeing it finally I think I would had been better served by just staying home entirely that weekend because this had to be one of the worst "action" movies I have seen in a very long time. If you want details then I got them, if you want reasons well I got those too. But most importantly I got proof.

Review Vital Stats:
Format: Blu-ray
Player: LG Model 370
Picture Quality: High-Definition
Sound Quality: High-Definition

Loves: Denzel Washington
Likes: Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Tony Scott
Hates: Action movies with very little action
Shocked: That this was critically acclaimed

Director Tony Scott has made some amazing films during his long career. If they weren't received too well by his critics then they usually had their fans to help bring home the bacon so to speak. Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and True Romance are probably his biggest winners and some of my favorite films of all time. But over the past decade he had adopted a style of filmmaking that was first. However as he started to use it more and more it became incredibly obnoxious (just try sitting through Domino or Taking of Pelham 123 for an example of this "style"). While I am happy to report that he has finally ditched that in-your-face approach (you can see everything that happens this time around!) I am equally as sad to say that his new film Unstoppable is just not very well made when all is said and done. This is especially unforgivable and disheartening given his credentials and experience behind the camera.

It is a bright and early morning in Pennsylvania when we see Will (Chris Pine) waking up on what appears to be a couch. Next we see that he is living at his brothers (or fathers, it was hard to tell) place. We know he is on the outs with his wife Darcy (Jesse Schram) when we see him sitting in his truck down the road from where she lives watching his son being sent off to school. At this point we are supposed to identify with Will and understand that he is just a hard working man that has some marital issues he is dealing with. These few fleeting moments define what and who Will is for the entirety of what will take place in the next 90 minutes.

Train number triple 7 awaits its chance to become unstoppable.

Next we have Will check into into his new job at the rail yard where he meets his partner Frank (Denzel Washington). We can tell immediately that not only does Frank dislike Will upon first glance but his buddies do as well. Some snide comments are thrown around about being too old or too young and we quickly establish the hierarchy of this relationship. Frank doesn't like when new guys come in and try to take jobs away from guys like him that have been working the railways for over 28 years. And when he discovers (from a very well informed buddy of his) that Will is also privy to some good fortune due to knowing some people in high places he decides to give this new kid as harsh a time as he possibly can. Before you know it they are suited up and on their engine car for the day.

Meanwhile on the other side of Pennsylvania we have another rail yard where we find probably two of the most worthless and pathetic group of railroad workers I have ever seen. But this is also where we meet the main character of the film, good ole triple 7 or if you feel so inclined you may call it the Beast. Those two bumbling buffoons that are in charge of triple 7 get it hitched up and on the go. A problem arises though where the man at the controls feels the need to get off the train and flip a switch before...well I don't know what because that is never explained but suffice to say it is important...I guess. Well as luck would have it the switch he put into idle magically slips back down to the "go" position and voila, we have ourselves what some might just call an unstoppable train. And as it turns out there are only two men alive that can stop it in time before it crashes and kills a lot of people. Can you guess who those two men are?

Frank gives a quick rundown of the dangerous task they are about to attempt.

OK, if you are one of those types that catches on fairly quickly then you might have detected a note of sarcasm pervading my every word from the above description. The reason for that is because this has to be one of the most deliberately manufactured and failed "action" films I have ever seen, and trust me I have seen A LOT. What do I mean by that you might ask? Well, I would be more than happy to run through what it is exactly that troubled me from minute one after pressing that play button on my controller. There are two things this film is supposed to be according to the director and writers of the film

First is the least obvious aspect which is a "character driven" film. That's right, somehow someone somewhere wrote this script and actually thought that these characters were worth exploring. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with these characters. As I mentioned before Will is having some marital problems that he is trying to sort out while Frank...well, he missed his daughters birthday. That's just as bad...right? Anyway my point is that both of these story lines are worn out and have been beaten to death in other much better films. When I saw Will sitting in his truck spying on his wife I knew what his situation was and it had nothing to do with how well the film was made. I knew because I had seen it all before and I had no doubt in my mind that at some point there was going to be a moment where the hateful wife sees the man she loathes become a hero on screen and all of a sudden she loves him again. And let's not even get started with the Frank character and his daughters that work at Hooters.

That's right, those cops are shooting the train.

Since the filmmakers were going for some deep character moments we get to see Will and Frank have these very thoughtful (and ill-timed) conversations where Will opens up to the man he hated 20 minutes ago about his many family issues and some of the trouble he got himself into. These conversations all take place inside the train engine cab throughout the entire movie. I suppose I was expected to be shocked and rattled on the revelations that Will spews forth about his past indiscretions but to be honest it was all white noise by that point. Between the constant cell phone calls to brothers or daughters and the random bickering the two men get into I was just over it all and wanted the train to crash into them to end my pain.

That leads me into the second aspect that this film was shooting for and dare I say the most important one. The action, this is an action movie right? There are supposed to be a lot of thrilling and daring stunts, vehicles being rammed into, random things exploding or flipping and a train that growls. Yes, you read that right, the train growls. Let's talk about this whole action thing. What is the first thing that pops into your head when you think about an action movie? Is it high speeds? Dangerous situations? People dying? Well you get one of those things at least...sort of anyway. You see, this is one of the most tame and relaxed action films of all time. Let me elaborate for you.

"My god, it's like a missile the size of.....meh, nevermind".

We are told that the runaway train is moving at upwards of 70 mph. OK, that is pretty fast for a train, I will grant them that. Problem is that it almost never seems to be moving that fast which leads into one of the biggest failings of the film, the lack of danger. We are told quite literally that "it's not just a train, it is a missile the size of the Chrysler building" by poor Rosario Dawson whom was saddled with a thankless and ultimately useless role as the person running the crisis control center. So with a description like that you might think there are some crazy times ahead. I am hear to tell you boys and girls that a train is only dangerous when it arrives, once it is gone who the hell cares. A perfect example of this is a train carrying a bunch of little kids on a field trip (don't they use buses in Pennsylvania?) that is coming head on down the same main line as triple 7. We see a few shots of the kids playing around in the train as the man at the helm sweats it out looking for the speeding train down the track.

The train with the kids pulls off on a side track just as triple 7 passes by and it is supposed to be a big "whew!" moment. Problem is that this happens about 10 to 15 minutes after it became unstoppable and once the train passes them by they are out of danger, end of story. This is a problem inherent with the use of a train as "the bad guy" of the film. Every time we see a bunch of people gathered around a train crossing there is a quick moment of worry as triple 7 approaches and as soon as it passes the danger is gone too. I can imagine everyone that was at each crossing being worried and once it moves on they go back to their normal lives. The film tries to play up the fact that the train is like a nuclear bomb or something and that EVERYONE is in danger at ALL TIMES. This worked wonders for a film like Speed with a bus that couldn't slow down below 50 mph in L.A. traffic or it would blow up but it doesn't work quite as well for a train that is stuck to a track and is traveling through open country.

Look at all those innocent people that will get hurt if it falls over.

That lack of danger is only multiplied whenever we cut back to Will and Frank and their conversations. They are so laid back and chill as they try to catch up with the train that you would think they are on some kind of a Sunday drive or something. To further that feeling they finally catch up to the train during the final 20 minutes of the film where they are able to start doing some action type stuff at last. But even the stunts they pull are fairly dull in the grand schemes of things. While I certainly know standing between two unhitched train cars while going 70 mph is far from safe that never really translates over on film. Same goes for a guy running across the tops of train cars, it may be dangerous but it sure as hell doesn't look like it.

So, the characters are cookie cutter, the action is more nail-filing than nail-biting, is that all that is wrong here? Unfortunately no, if those were the only issues I had with it then it would be a typical and uninspired action movie attempt at best. I mentioned before about the two men responsible for the train becoming unstoppable being halfwits. It isn't just them though, it was the people behind the camera as well. Let's think for a second here on the series of events that unfold during the film. The train gets away because only one guy (the fat guy no less) can't catch up to it to jump back on as ten other guys just stand there and laugh at him. This could have all been avoided if one of them dropped their sandwich and made a sprint for the dam train. Then later there is a daring stunt involving a train being in front of triple 7 and trying to slow it down by braking in front of it while they try to air drop a guy from a helicopter down on to it. Why not just have the guy on the train in front of it just run to the back and hop on over? Nope, instead we get a derailed train, an explosion (train engines can explode real easily it seems), and our only death for the entirety of the film.

Then about halfway in we learn that there has been this emergency stop switch on the side of the train this whole time with a giant red button (all it was missing was a big "PUSH ME TO STOP" sign above it) that can stop the train if it is pushed. This raises all kinds of questions like why didn't the fat guy just hit that button instead of trying to out run the train? When they tried to board it after that why not just hit the button? The guy they were dangling over the train, why couldn't they just dangle him next to it to push the button? Of course when this holy button is revealed to us the authorities attempt to push it in the most ridiculous fashion possible, by trying to shoot the dam thing as it passes by (whoever hits it gets the large pink plush elephant!). And once that moment passes by the button is never mentioned again.

This scene is the epitome of danger, look how tense it is.

I said at the beginning that Tony Scott had ditched those bad habits he had been abusing over the years finally. Well he seems to have picked up some new ones it its place. First up is he has been bitten by the Michael Bay bug and now must make sure every single shot he has is a swooping pan shot. He literally had a dolly system set up on the train with Will and Frank that could circle them endlessly. While I know static shots are not what a good action film makes, he needs to get some control over it. At some points the camera would start circling one person to the left and the next cut it would be circling someone else to the right which caused a bit of dizziness for a few seconds. Then there are the water beads on the windows of Will and Franks engine cab. I am admitting right here and now that is as petty as a complaint can come but this just bugged the shit out of me, I'm sorry.

I know a good amount about the tricks used by filmmakers to make shots more visually interesting or how they try to hide things off camera. Tricks like wetting down the road or putting a light to shine up at an actors face when driving at night so you can see them. Another popular choice is placing water beads on windows as though it had just finished raining. The effect works, it usually looks great but my god did they "F" it up here. We spend more than 40% of the film in that cab with those two and most of the shots are coming through the windows. It never rains once during the film, not once. Those water beads are there for the entire film (except the couple of screw ups where there are none). And on top of that their train is hauling ass, wind is rushing by, those dam water beads never move an inch. Those things are rock solid and there to stay. Nothing bugs me more than an overused film trick that doesn't go away.

I have to end this but there are just so many other problems. The newscasters and how quickly they get those train animations to show us how things are supposed to work, how everyone in the state of Pennsylvania seems to feel as though their lives are threatened, how when Will's wife turns on the news we have been watching the whole time and it is that instant where they conveniently tell the public who is riding that heroic train complete with really good photos of both actors, or how the guy in the truck tracked the train for over 70 miles for the entire film for no other reason than to appear at the end of the line to give Will a lift. So many problems so little patience. This is a painful film to watch, it isn't exciting, it isn't fun, it isn't a good movie of any kind. What little thrills you might get from it don't make up for the brain cells it kills as you watch it.

What's on the disc?

Well, despite my feelings on the film itself there is certainly much more here than I was expecting, although the film was a success at the box office so maybe I should have seen it coming. But don't let the wealth of content here spoil you because a lot of it is either by the numbers behind the scenes stuff or there is content repeated and reused in multiple featurettes. There were definitely a couple goodies in there though.

Audio Commentary -Director Tony Scott goes over the particulars of making the film feel "real" from the clothing that the main and minor characters wear to how little CG was used in the action scenes. Plus you get to hear his thoughts on the ups and downs of having Denzel bald as opposed to having hair in the film. It is a rather dry but active listen with him praising the practical and real elements of the film. It lost my attention though after the first 10 minutes and I am an audio commentary junkie. Your mileage may vary though if you liked the film so take that as you will.

Tracking the Story: Unstoppable Script Development - A pre-recorded conversation with Tony Scott and his writers that plays over the film. I got the feeling that these were a series of meetings they had that were spliced together to coincide with the action on screen. It is an interesting addition that I can't remember seeing before that actually trumps the audio commentary in how it gives you a raw behind the scenes look at how the story was put together. Recommended for anyone interested in how a film's story is worked out, even if it didn't in this case.

The Fastest Track: Unleashing Unstoppable (29:41 min) HD -Your basic and standard behind the scenes look at the production of the film. No surprises here, just a lot of talk about how "real" the film is and how much of a challenge it was to take over the miles of train track used in the filming. Good but manufactured.

Derailed: Anatomy of a Scene (10:00 min) HD -An extended look at how the first on film train derailment was accomplished. A lot of the footage here is reused from the previous featurette.

Hanging Off the Train: Stunt Work (14:25 min) HD -An extended look at the few major stunts with actors interacting with the train. I was surprised to find out that Denzel Washington did most of his own stunt work while Chris Pine used his stunt double for the majority of his scenes (to be honest though he had the more dangerous stuff to work with).

On the Rails with the Director and Cast (13:25 min) HD - Round table discussion with the Director and stars of the film on their different experiences during filming. This was a lot of fun, Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, and Tony Scott talk loosely and rather candidly amongst each other about how certain aspects of making the film effected them. They all feel real about their revelations which was refreshing to see after all the high fives seen in the other featurettes.

Theatrical Trailer HD - The films theatrical trailer.

Digital Copy "How To" HD - Tutorial on how to download your digital copy.

Sneak Peek - Trailers for Machete, Casino Jack, and the FX channel.


Final Verdict:

What a waste of talent and my time this was. All the actors did what they could with the material but that isn't nearly enough for me to recommend this. It was touted to be inspired by true events and in my research I did locate this event. Surprisingly it went down almost exactly like it did in the film...well, except for the part where everyone is an idiot and tries all the WRONG things to stop the train. Thankfully the real people working the railways are much smarter than the ones depicted here. At the very least the Blu-ray disc holds a good number of extras for anyone out there that is a fan of the film (what's wrong with you?) which makes this a fairly attractive purchase option for them.


Blu-ray                              DVD
Unstoppable [Blu-ray]     Unstoppable


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