By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Pop quiz, hotshots: What would the classic action flick Speed be without a memorable bad guy like Dennis Hopper?
The two-pronged answer: nothing nearly as exciting, and a lot like Tony Scott's Unstoppable, which like its runaway train just races clickety-clack down an established path. "Inspired by" an incident that didn't hurt anyone and barely nicked the landscape, Unstoppable is one of those movie occasions when embellishing the truth would be preferred.
The only villain here is the stupidity of two railway workers — one played by Earl Hickey's dumb brother, so that's no surprise — leading to an unattended train chugging toward potential disaster. The key word is "potential," since nothing especially disastrous happens. It's just a one-track race between the train and a locomotive chasing in reverse to stop it. Not even the idea that the train is hauling toxic chemicals and there's a trainload of children in its path goes beyond the worried discussion phase.
But it is Scott's movie, so expect plenty of his ADHD camera tricks to camouflage a lack of genuine suspense. There isn't a shot that Scott can resist goosing with a zoom, pan, pullback or swivel — signature moves that when piled together end up as a scrawl.
Somehow, Scott finagled his favorite actor, Denzel Washington, into this project, their fifth collaboration and just a smidgen better than the worst, Déja Vu. The Oscar winner has little to flex his acting chops as Frank Barnes, one of two engineers attempting to save the day. Frank is only days away from retirement (of course), and saddled with rookie Will Colson (Chris Pine), who's young enough to handle the train-crawling heroism at the climax.
But only at the climax, since Frank and Will spend most of the movie fretting about what may go wrong and sharing personal information about things that already have. Each man has women he's done wrong. Guess who'll be waiting with kisses at the end of the line.
Unstoppable also features Rosario Dawson as the unlikeliest rail yard supervisor ever, and Kevin Corrigan as a safety inspector who just happens to drop by on the best day to offer advice. Corrigan never appears as concerned about the crisis at hand as a safety inspector should. Maybe he read the entire script, or news accounts of the real-life incident.
Unstoppable isn't unwatchable, but it is a letdown after Speed and some of the Speed-on-a-(fill in the blank with a vehicle) flicks that followed. Forget missing Hopper; even Keanu Reeves might make this movie more entertaining.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.