There isn’t a director better qualified to direct an all-action, rogue-train pulse-pounder than Tony Scott.
Sir Ridders’ little bro has made a career of tapping his main vein, splashing the cinema screen with more rampant testosterone than Spearmint Rhino on a Saturday night.
He’s fetishised planes (Top Gun), race cars (Days Of Thunder), submarines (Crimson Tide) and Keira Knightley (er, Domino), and after 2009’s subway warm-up The Taking Of Pelham 123, he’s taken five-time collaborator Denzel Washington out of the control room, put him in the driving seat alongside captain of the Enterprise Chris Pine, and turned his macho lens on 100,000 tons of out-of control choo-choo.
“This was physically and mentally the toughest movie I’ve ever done,” says Scott in ‘On The Rails’, as he discusses the story of old-dog engineer Frank (Washington) and wet-behind-the-ears conductor will (Pine, proving that Star Trek was no fluke with yet more effortless charm).
It’s this pairing that becomes Pennsylvania’s last blue-collar hope to stop an out-of-control, driverless freight train containing explosive chemicals from blowing up thousands of ignorant citizens. That’s pretty much it, with the addition of Rosario Dawson as the controller who has the cojones to challenge train company suits over their stupid attempts to save money and thus jeopardise the chances of actually stopping ‘777’.
Scott has been on autopilot for a good half-dozen films, so the fact that his Speed for trainspotters is so robustly entertaining comes as a refreshing change. It helps that he’s stripped away some of his more self-conscious stylistic tics (most overpowering for Knightley’s aforementioned bounty hunter) to allow the throbbing thrills of a lean, mean concept to propel the action.
It’s Scott’s best film since 1995’s Crimson Tide and maybe it’s no surprise that it’s something of a throwback to that decade’s ruthless actioners. Unstoppable is a simple tale of ordinary guys doing extraordinary things – free from irony and based on a true story.
The extras are equally focused, ramming home Scott’s quest for “reality” and why it’s as much a two-handed character piece as an action movie. ‘The Fastest Track’ focuses on these two parallel tracks (no pun intended) and it quickly becomes clear that Scott’s own research lifted the material.
The truthful conflict between the veteran threatened with redundancy and the young pretty boy hired through nepotism was a product of the director’s delving, adding to writer Mark Bomback’s script (“The best page-turner I’d ever read,” Scott asserts).
The director’s enthusiasm is palpable and infectious, as he lays down his manifesto for keeping it “real” using “practical effects”, shot “in camera” and “within the realm of physics”, an effect bolstered by the sight of the retirement-age director strutting about in a puffa jacket and shorts in wintry Pennsylvania, toking on his trademark stogie.
Each of the featurettes builds on this theme. “You get an energy that you can’t get any other way, especially on stage with special effects,” Scott continues in ‘On The Rails’. “no matter how good CG is you get the feeling that you’re missing the heart and soul.”
You won’t get any argument from us, and docs like ‘Derailed’ show exactly what was needed to achieve that heart and soul: a 360-degree camera rig used over a 45-mile stretch of track to film the actors in the cab from any angle.
It’s old-fashioned filmmaking that no amount of mo-cap jumpsuits can replicate – and when you add helicopters zipping up and down over trees (“Tony loves helicopters so much that if you just say the word he starts hopping up and down,” shares Pine, Washington adding, “That helicopter guy was crazy!”), camera cars, loads of cranes, NASA lenses... you name it, the result is exhilarating.
When Scott refers to his “toys” he isn’t kidding. “I’m lucky to have all [these cameras] running at the same time,” he explains. “I’m always accused of indulgence but indulgence is good in terms of coverage because it gives you more freedom.”
On his commentary Scott talks of Unstoppable as a culmination of his decades making movies and, with quite a lot of repetition, his delivery mirrors the subject matter – once he starts, info, detail and insight come thick, fast and sometimes hard to catch.
Tonally pragmatic, it’s often delightful and as old-school as the film itself. Comments like, “I don’t know how other directors work – I’ve never been on another set... I’ve never been on my brother’s set!” surprise and disarm.
Seeing the kaleidoscope of filmmaking infrastructure Scott sets in motion is awesome stuff. As you watch the offscreen daredevil antics executed just to film the onscreen daredevil antics, the only niggle is that it’s begging for a Picture-in- Picture presentation. As fun and as involving as the extras are, they suffer from being too traditional.
However, you don’t often get as pleasingly candid a group interview as ‘On The Rails’. Pine is a bit starstuck – and admits as much: watch Washington squirm as Pine hero-worships him and Scott. Amusingly, Scott’s cool with it. He knows he’s qualified.
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A sturdy, edge-of-your-seat, original action film that excites and thrills with stunts, characters and cool trains.