Tony Scott's brisk, economical action movie Unstoppable features an unmanned, brakeless runaway freight train racing full throttle through Pennsylvania. The train is speeding toward an elevated S curve where, we are promised, it will derail, depositing its load of toxic and combustible chemicals upon a densely populated area. The disaster will be huge. How huge? Comely train dispatcher Connie (Rosario Dawson) sums it up: "We're talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building."
Clearly, this situation calls for a cool head, a steady hand and a dazzling smile--in short, Denzel Washington. He plays Frank, a veteran railway engineer grudgingly paired with Will (Chris Pine), a hotheaded rookie conductor. After their train narrowly avoids a head-on collision with the runaway, they hatch a plan to chase and stop it. It's dangerous, but if it works, both men will be heroes. Then maybe Frank's gorgeous daughters, who work at Hooters, will start answering his calls. Will's wife (Jessy Schram) might drop the silly restraining order she took out after he brandished a handgun. Also, lives will be saved.
The film, inspired by a more modestly dramatic 2001 incident in Ohio, is simplistic but rousing and well cast. Few are better than Washington at playing likable, down-to-earth heroes, and Pine displays some of the same appealing sass we saw in Star Trek. The trains get a chance to shine too; Scott shoots them as hulking, belching, intimidating, magnificent beasts.
He also teases an impressive amount of drama out of the crisis, from the 173 crossings that need to be secured to the train full of sweet schoolkids who have no idea how ironic it is that they're on a safety tour on this particular day. On the distracting downside, screenwriter Mark Bomback gives insane credence to the capabilities of the media: the play-by-play offered by TV news crews covering the crisis is impossibly detailed and implausibly well informed.
The disaster movie is old-fashioned conceptually, but Unstoppable stays contemporary in its references to the plight of today's blue collar America. Connie can be a train dispatcher, but she's still likely to encounter a sexist bureaucrat (Kevin Dunn) who doubts her capabilities. And old-timers like Frank and his buddies will continue to have their jobs threatened by cost-effective new hires like Will. Unstoppable cheerfully tries to convince us such fundamental challenges can be overcome and end with hugs all around. It just takes a little teamwork and the helpful motivation of a locomotive on the loose.