‘Unstoppable’ Was Tony Scott’s Swan Song and His Ode to Pure Motion
Feb 28, 2023
As a filmmaker, Tony Scott was never partial to stillness. In a Tony Scott picture, the camera is always in motion: it races alongside the actors, furious and impatient, the passing world becoming a hazy, poetic blur in the rearview mirror. Scott’s camera shudders, it sputters out, it freeze-frames, and, at times, it feels as though the pure, scorching intensity of this filmmaker’s preferred audio/visual lexicon can barely be contained within the frame.
Tony Scott’s Need for Speed
This need-for-speed tendency gets even more pronounced, the adrenalized energy becoming even more impossible to contain as Scott grew older and his films became more abstract. You can certainly see Scott’s devotion to motion for motion’s sake in seminal early works such as Top Gun and Days Of Thunder, which makes sense in both cases if your job is making a pair of films about naval pilots and NASCAR drivers, respectively. Scott’s mastery of hyperkinesis becomes almost dreamlike in later films such as Man on Fire and Déjà Vu, in which even scenes that involve actors simply sitting in control rooms and reciting functional movie dialogue are captured with more verve and urgency than 95% of action cinema from the 2000s.
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Tony Scott Was One of the Most Influential Directors of His Time
When we talk about Tony Scott, we are honoring his genius within the vaulted pantheon of legendary contemporary action filmmakers: John Woo, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Mann, etc. Even something like last year’s now Oscar-nominated mega-hit Top Gun: Maverick (directed by Tron: Legacy filmmaker Joseph Kosinski) was so enjoyable, in part, because of how much it reminded people of what the sensation of watching a Tony Scott movie used to feel like. We lost Tony Scott in 2012, and since, both action cinema and the world at large have felt drearier, and less exciting. Tony was a light, a beacon, an innovator, a giant in his field, and arguably his generation’s most influential curator of moving images. (Is a movie like Michael Bay’s Ambulance even possible to conceive of without Scott’s trademark touch?)
Image Via 20th Century Fox
‘Unstoppable’ Has All of Tony Scott’s Signature Trademarks
Scott’s last film was Unstoppable, which starred longtime collaborator and muse, Denzel Washington, and Chris Pine as a grizzled engineer and a younger hotshot conductor, respectively, who team up to take down a runaway train. Unlike so many last films from great directors, there is no sense that Unstoppable is any kind of final statement, creatively speaking. In terms of both craft and tone, the film is as breathtakingly put-together and gleefully unpretentious as anything Scott ever put his name on. In some ways, Unstoppable feels like the keyed-up 21st-century answer to the game-changing silent picture L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (subtitled in English as The Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station), which, rumor has it, sent such a shock through the collective systems of early movie crowds that audience members ran from the screen in terror.
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Like that cinematic milestone from 1895, the primary movie magic trick of Unstoppable involves a train moving at breakneck speed. The details of how and why the train in Unstoppable becomes, well, unstoppable do not matter one iota. They are swiftly dispensed with in the film’s first act by screenwriter Mark Bomback and then rarely mentioned again (unless strictly necessary). The point of all this frenzied madness – the real reason that we believe Scott made this film – is because this literal off-the-rails crazy train exists as the most persuasive visual metaphor for Scott’s obsession with raw kinesis. Every frame of Unstoppable sees this mixed-freight railway train hurling through the otherwise idyllic Pennsylvania countryside at what feels like light speed. The question then becomes; can two average working stiffs who don’t even particularly like each other (at first) team up, “run that bitch” down (as Pine’s character memorably quips), and save their friends, family, and loved ones from almost-certain doom?
The Cast Grounds the Action in ‘Unstoppable’
If the film’s sense of gravitas weren’t rooted in something authentic, Unstoppable would be pure sensation – arresting, dizzying sensation, but absolute sensation nonetheless. Washington and Pine are the film’s dual secret weapons in that regard. Washington is the hard, weary heart of prior Scott masterworks such as Man on Fire and Crimson Tide, and the seasoned railroad vet that he plays here, Frank Barnes, sees the Training Day actor in his most amicable register. Frank is selfless to the point where he doesn’t much care if he lives or dies in the process of trying to stop the train – but, then again, he has daughters who very much need him around. Pine’s Colson is also a familiar Tony Scott archetype: a hothead, a young gun, a prideful professional with something to prove. The joy of his character’s arc is watching Colson’s bullheadedness soften into something resembling altruism as he balances mending things with his estranged wife with the nerve-shredding task at hand. It should be mentioned that all the actors in Unstoppable, from Rosario Dawson as a resilient yardmaster to Pineapple Express’ Kevin Corrigan as a Federal Railroad Administration inspector, do excellent work, making even the screenplay’s most nakedly expositional points sound real, pressing, and human.
Image Via 20th Century Fox
Tony Scott Shows His Faith in Humanity With ‘Unstoppable’
There is also something appropriately inspiring – something that actually makes sense when you consider that this film was Scott’s swan song – about Unstoppable’s thesis: Ordinary folks among us who will act as humanity’s saviors – not police, bosses, or bureaucrats. If anything, Scott’s portrait of law enforcement and corporate lackey-dom is bitter-bordering-on-disgusted: the cops in Unstoppable don’t know how to do anything but shoot at the moving train with automatic weapons (spoiler: that plan doesn’t work). Meanwhile, the movie’s heartless manifestation of bottom-line greed (an oily VP played by veteran character actor Kevin Dunn) cares not if human lives get lost in the fracas, so long as he keeps his profit margins tidy. Unstoppable understands that the collectivity of humanity is what makes us able to confront insurmountable odds: while Frank and Colson are ultimately the two heroes who are able to stop the train, they receive constant support from their fellow working-class compatriots. Scott’s faith in the power of humanity to avert calamity is almost profound: here is a film that genuinely understands that everyone can be of value when facing a crisis.
For Tony Scott, the act of creating motion was its own kind of poetry. It allowed him to bend time, as he did in Déjà Vu, or make old scenarios feel new and fresh again, as he did with his terrific update of the blistering subway thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123. With Unstoppable, there is nothing standing in the way of the motion itself, and anything that does happen to be standing away gets run through or blown to bits. It’s disappointing and tragic that we will never get a new Tony Scott film, but the man left us with not only an incredible body of work but an incredible life. Unstoppable is one of the great action landmarks of the 2000s. It’s as thunderous a note as any director could hope to go out on.
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