A lot of things get in the way of the train in Unstoppable, and that is the way it should be. To complain about the presence of scenes of helpless entities in peril in a disaster movie is like complaining about the presence of songs in a musical.

Unstoppable achieves a delirious, curious sort of thrill from its familiar elements, including a pair of apropos moments of the innocent in danger. Certainly the film needs sequences of a train full of school children on a field trip stuck on the same track as a trailer of horses stalled in the path of the out-of-control train. Why stop there? A van full of nuns singing gospel music and a bus full of seniors on their way to bingo would have been perfectly acceptable, too.

Am I being facetious? Yes and no, although almost entirely no. I highly doubt anyone associated with the production takes this material any more seriously than it deserves. It’s the story of a runaway train the length of the Chrysler Building, carrying 30,000 tons of explosive and hazardous materials, barreling down the track at about 70 miles per hour, and heading toward an inclined curve that sits above one of the heroes’ hometown, for crying out loud.

Or perhaps I’m entirely wrong, and everything — from the “inspired by a true story” title to the party-time atmosphere of the press conference at the end — isn’t supposed to be just exploitative fun. Either way, the film is short, sweet, to the point, and, despite some redundant and hokey (even for this story) storytelling choices, as enjoyable as it sets out to be. Then again, maybe the film is just more cheaply entertaining than it ever intended to be.

On one end, there are the items placed in front of or next to the train to be smashed to pieces, and on the other are the people who try to stop it by rappelling down upon it using a helicopter, jumping from a moving truck to the cab, leaping from another moving train onto a rear car, and, in a scene that is so ridiculous it wouldn’t surprise me to find out it actually happened, shooting at it. One of them works in combination with another, and you’d better believe neither is the last one.

Two of the people attempting to put the brakes on the careering train are Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a 28-year engineering veteran so dedicated that he remembers his start date, and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a rookie conductor finishing his training under Frank’s guidance. Neither one likes the other at first (too reckless and inexperienced, Frank thinks, while Will’s annoyed his teacher is always right), but a train with the airbrakes out threatening to kill a town full of people in western Pennsylvania can have a unifying effect on people.

Both have their mandatory problems. Frank’s daughters are off at college, working their way as waitresses at chain restaurant that focuses on women’s assets (you know the one), and don’t have that much time for their old man anymore. Will is separated from his wife after a misunderstanding with a cop friend of hers that involved a gun and resulted in a restraining order.

None of it matters much after an inept railroad employee (Ethan Suplee) accidentally lets that huge train hauling toxic chemicals loose. We’re reminded of the stakes constantly, thanks to director Tony Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback’s insistence on cutting away to mock news coverage of the event, during which reporters repeatedly tell us how big the train is, the population of the town in its path, reiterating and commenting on the efforts to stop it, and then starting over from the beginning.

On the other end is railroad manager Connie (Rosario Dawson), caught between the real-world experience of Frank and the big-money, no-common-sense demands of her boss Galvin (Kevin Dunn), a suit more concerned with losses of profit margins and the cost of property than lives. A federal inspector (Kevin Corrigan) with some basic information about the substances onboard just happens to be visiting, too, of course.

Scott has calmed down his technique quite a bit here, no longer playing with film stock, filters, and camera speed, and instead regulating himself to a constantly moving camera, especially in static dialogue scenes over the radio and phone (panning around participants and zooming in on their faces). The stunts and special effects are left to their own visceral punches (sparks flying and scratching of metal on the soundtrack), until, of course, we’re stuck watching the phony news coverage angles of the sequences with voiceovers telling us exactly what we already know and momentarily pulling us out of the action.

That narrative device is obnoxious, but it is a minor complaint in the bigger picture. Scott paces Unstoppable in such a way that all the footage seamlessly blends together into a fairly exciting piece of controlled chaos.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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