Unstoppable train

‘Unstoppable’: Tony Scott’s Action-Packed Swan Song

Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at Tony Scott’s Unstoppable.

Cinema has always been crazy about trains. Stories set on the rails, from The Great Train Robbery to The Polar Express to Under Siege II, have enthralled viewers for decades. With 2010’s Unstoppable, the late Tony Scott continued that tradition and did for trains what Speed did for buses. The recipe was simple: put Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in a locomotive cab and chase a chemical-laden runaway train hurtling towards a working-class town. Scott’s final film is perhaps the perfect synthesis of tricks and techniques picked up by the British director over the years. 

Most remembered for the iconic and jingoistic Top Gun, Scott’s directing came of age in the 1990s. While many of his projects failed to reach the heights of Top Gun, Scott was a director with a style and flair for action, exemplified by Unstoppable. Washington was a frequent collaborator of Scott’s, buoying the director with a series of hits including Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and lastly, Unstoppable.

The train-set film exhibited Scott’s command of frenetic camera work and taut pacing. Unstoppable is the fictionalised version of the real-life runaway train CSX 8888 let loose on the train tracks of Ohio in 2001. Scott’s project — which passed through several hands before ending up with the veteran Brit — was perhaps in-camera action’s glorious finale. Watching Unstoppable today, one appreciates what makes it work. Fantastic chemistry between Washington and Pine, an interesting supporting cast in the rail yards, and a despicable bad guy in the boardroom make Unstoppable a classic adventure film. It was Scott’s understanding of action, however, that made it thrilling.

Known for his use of high contrast — pre-JJ Abrams — and ‘shaky’ cam before Michael Bay, Scott applied his decades of experience into a kinetic story that could have come off the rails at any time. An important part of Scott’s accomplishment with Unstoppable was his assistant director, Xochi Blymyer. A veteran of T2, Demolition Man, and Blown Away, Blymyer was well versed in filmmaking that pushed the action envelope. To make an action film stand out when cinema was utterly dominated that year by CG, exemplified by Avatar, the directors of Unstoppable needed to harness the visceral thrills of physics and big splashy stunts.

Unstoppable worked on a  limited budget, and early on, Scott seemed to reconcile the film couldn’t be done with CG the way he could do it in-camera. Would a computer-rendered hundred-ton train pull people into the theatres and to the edge of their seats? Scott understood the human eye perceived a real plummeting plane or tumbling human differently than something conjured from ones and zeros. Instead, Scott and his production team went the old school route (with a small dash of CG to sell a high-speed gag of the train speeding on a track elevated above a town). To stage a train crash, where one out-of-control multi-ton and multi-car train collided with a pair of sacrificial locomotives, Scott got a couple of massive train carcasses, rigged them up, and derailed them spectacularly. 

Scott flipped cop cars throughout the film, threw helicopters at rolling trains, smashed a horse trailer, and dropped numerous stunt performers into harm’s way. While moving much slower than the 50 mph portrayed in the film, Unstoppable’s trains were real 68 foot long, 167-ton metal beasts. Scott put the viewer in the bed of speeding trucks, paralleling trains at high speed, spewing gravel, and allowing trees and buildings to blur past in the foreground. Unstoppable was filmed in rural Pennsylvania, where movies are not traditionally made. It gave the budget-conscious production miles of actual rails, small industrial towns, and unobstructed swathes of undulating landscapes. Scott stoked Unstoppable’s thrills by clever camera work, simple direction, charismatic acting, and a straightforward jeopardy story. There are only two ways to go in a story on the rails — forward or back — and in Unstoppable, Scott pushed action cinema in every direction at once to create a near-perfect cinematic swan song.

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to support our website, you can follow us on FacebookTwitter and YouTube

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *