Thursday, February 17, 2011


It figures. Right when I take the time to craft a new word for Tony Scott to describe his over-directing, he goes ahead and tones himself down considerably, leaving me with a perfectly worthwhile runaway train movie that doesn’t have any of the big camera or CG flourishes that we’ve all slowly come to be annoyed by with him.

The film stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as two new partners working for the Pennsylvania railroads. Their first day together finds them with some problems, however, when a horrible screw-up far down the line leads to an unmanned train going full speed down their line. As one by one all the rail company’s plans to stop the train fail miserably, it becomes clear that the only way for disaster to be averted is for Captain Kirk and Malcolm X to stop it themselves.

One thing I was rather fond of with this film was just how the train got going through a perfect storm of fairly plausible mechanical errors and one tremendous bit of human error (before the end credits, when the film is giving us a textual account of where the various survivors are today, the guy that screwed up initially gets a particularly amusing outcome). Then, because it is of course an action movie and not a documentary, we have to ratchet up the tension by explaining how the train simply has too many cars -- and thus, far to much weight on it -- to be stopped by any ordinary runaway train means, and then we naturally also discover that eight of its cars are carrying a highly toxic and flammable substance, making sure that if the train derails when it reaches the tight curve in Bellaire, Ohio, the entire city will be destroyed.

The film works both in how it sets up its various crises and in how it solves them (or doesn’t, as the case may be). For instance, early on, before they realize just how fast the train is moving (they originally just think it’s drifting slowly, not realizing it’s plowing ahead at full speed), there’s a brief subplot with a train full of schoolchildren on the same track that winds up being diverted just in time. A less confident film might have spent a half hour or more on them even though everyone watching knows full well a damn train full of kids isn’t going to be wiped out. Here, they’re diverted almost immediately after the runaway train is reported, and though they get off the track just in time for the kids to all ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as it whizzes past them, the film doesn’t try to insult us by spending any undue time pretending what’s going to happen.

I worry that I may be overhyping it to much here now. The problem arises in that, while it’s nothing particularly fantastic, there really isn’t anything appreciably wrong with it, either. The acting is solid down the line (if it‘s occasionally overdone, this is exactly the kind of movie that requires it), it’s nice and fast-paced, there’s good buddy cop-style banter between Washington and Pine, it doesn’t insult our intelligence, and it’s directed both competently and without any of Tony Scott’s excesses. The only real problem is that it never actually excels at anything; it’s unfortunately probably going to wind up one of those movies that you’ll watch whenever it happens to be on TV, and will simply drift out of your consciousness almost immediately afterward. Still, that hour and a half you’re watching it? Solid.

Rating: ***

P.S. The film is supposedly based on a true story. I have no choice but to assume, however, that it took a few more liberties with the facts than 127 Hours did

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