If you tend to dislike a filmmaker’s work, if he puts less effort into doing those things that annoy you, either because he can’t afford to or is unable to, does that mean you’ve learned to enjoy his films, or just that you’ve convinced yourself that he’s suddenly tolerable? With Tony Scott, who made Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Man on Fire, Enemy of the State, etc., there’s not a lot to think about, so a viewer shouldn’t be blamed if their mind begins to wander amidst the maelstrom of visual pyrotechnics and ear assault.
What differentiates Tony Scott from other filmmakers who work in the same genres and styles (such as his brother Ridley and Michael Bay) is that Scott will stop telling his story in order to experiment with images that are usually unrelated to the characters. Man on Fire is a perfect example of this; it’s adapted from a 90 minute film, but stretched out to 150 minutes by adding flash frames, repeated footage, and all sorts of tricks that most film students have gotten out of their system by the time they graduate. Say what you want about Michael Bay, he makes overlong movies for 4 year-olds and the manic editing of films like Bad Boys II and Transformers are disastrous, but (moral reprehensibility aside) even the many pointless sequences are about something. Tony Scott, especially in a movie like Domino (which was nominated for the “Most expensive movie to look like a MySpace page” award), is only amusing himself by having scenes with consistently contradicting information. By the end of one of his more hyperactive movies, all you’re sure of is that you got absolutely nothing out of it.
But Scott works on a punishment basis, when he goes overboard and the movie fails financially (like Domino, The Last Boy Scout, and his remake of The Taking of Pelham 123), he reins it in, and the movies that follow, like Déjà vu, True Romance, and his new film Unstoppable, tell a coherent story and are comparatively sedate. Sure, Unstoppable, his runaway train vehicle for Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, has needless scenes of cop cars flipping over (which Scott also provided in Pelham), helicopter shots of helicopters, and quickly cutting 4 shots of people walking a few feet when a single tracking shot would have worked just fine. But, in Unstoppable, it’s always clear where we are, shots last longer than 12 frames, the action scenes are slickly directed and suspenseful, and the corny, simplified dialogue, which gives us arrogant bad guys who screw up and blame everyone else when they get caught, and pure at heart, misunderstood good guys, who can prove their mettle if they were only given a chance — Well, that’s stuff’s pretty silly anyway.
It’s a relief that Scott doesn’t delve into the personal lives of his characters until 2/3 of the way through the movie when we really don’t care (he could have slipped in the exposition in earlier, but it’s all boilerplate clichés, so it doesn’t make much difference). Why distract us from the central plot that the titular train is filled with nuclear weapons and when it runs out of track, it will blow up a small town in Pennsylvania? Is it really all that relevant to learn about arrogant rookie conductor Chris Pine’s estranged wife or old codger with a few weeks before retirement Denzel and his twin daughters who work at Hooters? Will Pine and Denzel’s bickering cease before they can stop the train? Will their arrogant boss ruin everything by trying to use another train to knock the deadly train off its tracks? Will overqualified character actors like Kevin Corrigan arrive just in time to recite necessary technical exposition? Despite how obvious this all sounds, it’s so pared down that the no frills approach is an advantage, the film is relatively focused and so the minor distractions don’t get in the way of enjoying the goofy, but compellingly brief 98 minute movie.
Unstoppable is a hodgepodge anyway, according to the movie, the cause of the train malfunction is either a ghost, or it’s the liberal news media, or it’s the evil fat people who twiddle their creepy mustaches at every plot turn. That may sound like an exaggeration, but there’s a strange thing going on in Unstoppable where the good guys are all skinny and have washboard abs (or look like Rosario Dawson) and the bad guys (Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, etc.) are out of shape blubber who apparently resent those who can pass up dessert. Maybe the good guys knew about a company funded gym membership that defeated the thunder thighs you get from sitting in a conductor’s booth or behind a desk watching the electronic signal board. Hey, I told you that watching a Tony Scott movie will make your mind wander.
An abbreviated version of this review ran in the November 8-12th issue of The Germantown Chronicle and The Mt. Airy Independent.