Sunday, November 14, 2010

Screeching fault

Unstoppable [**]

Unstoppable is the kind of movie I feel bad for not liking. The bare bones plot moves with forward momentum from frame one and the charisma of stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine should go a long way towards making the film critic proof, but as I am wont to do I get hung up on a sequence of events so idiotic that it is probably fairly accurate and, thus, infuriating.

Be warned, here there be spoilers:

The film opens with two rail yard workers tasked with moving a thirty-nine car train from one section of track to the other, a simple enough job, but they're running a little behind. Rather than take time to connect the disconnected air brakes (that one guy said was pretty important not to overlook) they decide to move the train while leaving it in the idle position. They also have to give the train enough power that it creeps along at about ten miles an hour. In a perfect world the train would've remained in the idle position, but doesn't. When the engineer disembarks from the train to flip a switch, ghost like, the gears inside shift from idle to throttle, the engineer completely unaware of this, struts toward the switch. As the train picks up speed, one engineer races the train until he falls. Meanwhile, the guy standing the next to him, presumably unable to switch a flip or outrun the hundred pounds heavier guy, stands there and does nothing. I can only assume the fear of being sat on looms large. I don't know if it's supposed to soften the blows of their idiocy more when we realize these characters are played by Ethan Suplee of My Name is Earl and Chasing Amy fame and T.J. Miller of She's Out of My League, but I'll tell you that their incompetence is not charming if it's not a comedy.

More jaw dropping than their flat out stupidity and negligence is the idea that I'm asked to believe these guys don't know the content of the trains they're moving. I'm sure that training manuals and previous mistakes have underscored the importance of not cutting corners, but often times it still happens. I'm okay with someone choosing to do a piss poor job, but asking me to believe they remain completely ignorant of this day's thousands of pounds of explosive chemicals seems kind of insulting to me. I have a summer job that allows me to be massive amounts of lazy, but when someone tells me that we're being audited I try to bring my A-game. Explosive chemicals are A-game needing shit, too. I was pretty flummoxed by this, I can only accept laziness as the cause of this. I don't believe people would have been allowed to remain ignorant.

Spoilers pretty much end here.

Did I also mention that the guy in charge of all rail yard operations and the station master were all unaware of what was on that train? Maybe it's weird that they don't know about their cargo, but Denzel Washington's character seems to know everything about what he's hauling that day, the length of his train and everything else. I'm sure the other workers from the beginning weren't conductors or engineers, but clearly everyone on every level can make a costly mistake and they have to know that sometimes the consequences of those mistakes vary. In some ways I can sympathize with the CEOs, that the movie shows, who don't want to get screwed because of the negligence of a couple of idiots, but I also think it's their fault for keeping employees poorly apprised of shipping manifests and cargo read-outs. If this isn't the kind of thing that would normally happen, if these guys would know what was on their train then I blame the movie for resisting the temptation of giving us a human villain. It makes everyone look stupider, even if, only accidentally.

It's a shame too that this is such a persistent hang up because I think Chris Pine and Denzel Washington do some quality first-day-of-work-together bonding Yet my petty grievances are getting in the way of enjoying it. Chris Pine plays Will Colson, a kid from a well connected family whose part of the rail company's ongoing initiative to hire young turks to replace overpaid old timers. Denzel is one of the old-timers who we discover is not just a guy who loves doing the right thing, but a guy who is going to do something completely stupid and heroic because they're already going to push him out the door and he wants to exit in style. As the two of them embark on this impossible mission they bond over their marriages and Denzel tells Pine how much he likes him by saying how much he is annoyed by him. To be fair, Pine is a little cocky, but it's not hard to see that beneath that he's a guy who wants to do the right thing.

Kevin Corrigan and Rosario Dawson are not bad as a Railway Safety Inspector and the Station Master who are both incredibly quick on their toes and seem like exactly the kind of bureaucracy you want to deal with in such a dire situation. Their effectiveness stems from a reasonable level of concern and interest in the safety of people. In contrast, anyone concerned with the company's bottom line, as a result of this situation, is more prone to cook up an extravagant and stupid situational response. An effort to transport a Marine onto the runaway train ends with him being thrown through the locomotive's windshield in front of a television news chopper. It's fairly evocative of Bruce Willis' great line from Die Hard ("I'm not the one who just got butt-fucked on national television, DeWayne.") because, well, it just happened.

One of the things that Unstoppable does is filter every bad response through the prism of television news. I don't know if it was done on purpose, but it only makes the situation worse, we get to watch the trouble escalate, but a lot of times we get to watch people as they watch the situation escalate. I'm not talking about the good guys behind the scenes who aren't on the news but regular folks. Being removed from the action like that makes the story less intense, but also shows how disconnected people are from the decisions they make. Weirdly, though, it doesn't flatter the movie. Both the film's audience and the movie's audience get to see the wrong decisions play out on the news while the people actually coming up with the plan and doing it don't get seen at all or through news cameras that make them look like more idiots making bad decisions.

I guess what I'm saying in as long winded a way as possible is that the movie is more interested in screw-ups than heroics. Not even the fact that it's heroes are screw-ups, but it's interested in what people do wrong more than right. Again, I'm not talking about characters who have something to attone for but people who take unnecessary risks and/or are stupid. Even when the movie tries to take the time to explain the heroic decision by Pine and Washington it can't help but look like another misguided idea.

Perhaps it's unfair to get hung up on the actions of a guy who sets the plot in motion. Had this mistake not happened there wouldn't be a story here but this was neglect, not an accident. It's a big deal that no one actually reprimands the guy whose fault it is onscreen. Relegating his fate to a punch line in the end credits character post-script speaks poorly of the comically incompetent light the movie puts the character in and everyone else in the movie by association, except Washington and Kevin Corrigan (Corrigan deserves credit for actually making the plan Denzel proposes in the trailer a workable one).

One day I'm sure I'll get over this. You know how I get about mole hills.

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