Director Tony Scott seems to be regarded as the second fiddle between himself and his brother, Ridley. The Mets to his elder sibling's Yankees. Looking at their respective bodies of work, though, reveals that while Ridley's highs (Blade Runner, Alien) exceed those of his younger brother (True Romance), neither of them is above making a bad film -- and Ridley's lows (Hannibal) can plummet lower than any of Tony Scott's inoffensive misfires.
But, in the end, they share more in common than not, whether it's their choices of material -- genre fare meant mainly to entertain and excite -- or the distinct visual signatures that define their work. When I go into a flick by either of them, I tend to look more at the craftsmanship of the film than perhaps the stories, which rarely seem to be as elaborately structured. A few twists and turns aside, their films seem to revel in lean, stripped-down narratives, which, for the most part, can be described in a short sentence.
To wit, Unstoppable would go something like this: Two everymen must stop a runway train hauling eight cars full of toxic chemicals before it derails in a major city. That's a propulsive, fat-free, loosely based-on-a-true-story concept that is, fortunately, rather satisfying in Tony Scott's deft hands.
Will Colson (Chris Pine) is a rookie conductor for the fictional West Virginia Railroad who gets assigned to make a run with Frank Barnes (Denzel -- no need for a last name anymore, he's just Denzel now; kind of like Topol, Mako or Cher), an older engineer who is three weeks out from a forced retirement. Despite Barnes's buddies taking a dim view toward Colson due to his family connections and the general resentment old timers get when someone half their age does their job for less money, Barnes remains easy going towards Colson, only becoming stern when he sees Colson's distractions with his estranged wife (Jessy Schram) are causing him to overlook important details of the job.
Meanwhile, in another train yard, a feckless lineman (Ethan Suplee) decides to jump off a moving locomotive to make a quick track adjustment, believing that he's locked the train's throttle. The throttle slips and the train picks up too much speed for the portly lineman to get back on. Normally, not a big deal but he also neglected to connect the airbrakes, disabling the automatic system that would normally shut down the engine. Genius.
When the yardmaster, Connie Hooper (an oddly cast Rosario Dawson) gets wind of the situation, her plan to derail the now full-bore runaway train -- which threatens towns along the track with its load of hazardous chemicals -- in an open area before it reaches the more populated Stanton, has her butting heads with her corporate bosses, lead by Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn), who all seem to be generally greedy and equally inept idiots.
In the midst of the confusion, and after failed attempts on all fronts to find a way to stop the train, it becomes clear that Colson and Barnes, with their idea of catching the runaway by the tail and pulling it in the opposite direction to slow it down, must step up heroically to avert disaster.
Unstoppable -- for all its speed-ramped hyper-reality -- is a well-crafted action/suspense film that hits its beats almost reassuringly. The script by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) is shot full of cliché and more than a few drops of sensational manipulation, but they come on top of Scott's relentless direction that gives the genre conventions a somewhat adrenaline-fueled yet warm familiarity.
It's the little things you know will happen, like Colson's estranged wife seeing him on news reports being awesome and losing her anger to loving concern for his safety; the unlikely camaraderie between Colson and Barnes that morphs from contention to commiseration to friendship forged in a life-or-death situation; the meddling corporate bad guys who get their poetic justice when forthrightness inevitably topples wonton ineptitude. They're all there, and as shopworn as these tropes are, Unstoppable re-spins them into a satisfyingly tense and slickly cinematic ride.
Scott has toned down on the his saturated quick cutting and the candy-coated look of something like Domino, but Unstoppable is still visually kinetic, and Scott stages some impressive practical destruction with his monstrous diesel-powered antagonist (the grandeur of the big screen, and a concussive audio system for the great sound design, helps this immensely). It all looks great and never loses its spatial coherence, while pulling off some thrilling, hefty action. Scott gives the threat weight with his steady directorial hand and elicits a decent amount of suspense even though it's pretty clear how things will turn out.
That familiarity is aided and forgiven by the likeable performances from Denzel and Chris Pine (and the hilarious turn by Lew Temple as Ned) who enjoy an easy chemistry and ably hold the screen alongside the rest of the heavy machinery. Neither Colson nor Barnes are particularly deeply drawn characters, but what depth they possess is lit with enough megawatts of on-screen charisma to power a small city.
Pine still seemed to be channeling Captain Kirk's rebellious smartass demeanor but I've seen that Star Trek remake approximately 15 times now, so that could just be me. Denzel isn't really stretching here, either, but neither of them has to. Emote heroically, have an easy rapport with good looks and lock up when you leave.
Unstoppable isn't anything that will stick with you, but as far as economical suspense films go, it knows how to stay on the rails.
Feeling the Sting
I haven't read the Millennium Trilogy, so I have no way of knowing if the diminishing returns of its film adaptations are an issue with Stieg Larsson's narrative or the change in writers and director from the first of those films, the quite excellent The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The tale told there, of the unlikely team of celebrity, muck-racking journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and socially maladjusted cyberpunk Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) joining forces to solve the mystery of a cold missing persons case was a self-contained origin story that could have easily ended right there and gone out on top.
But the success of Larsson's book spawned two more novels (and most of a fourth before his untimely death), and as adapted by the subsequent two films, it seemed something got lost in his narrative. Separating Noomi and Blomkvist in The Girl Who Played with Fire -- as Lisbeth endeavored to track down her evil, Russian defector father, Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov) and Blomkvist attempts to clear her of trumped up murder charges -- gave the film an overly convoluted middle-chapter feel that reveals government cover-ups of human trafficking and Lisbeth's half-brother, Ronald (Mikael Spreitz), a character straight from a Bond film with his Teutonic haircut, hulking strength and inability to feel physical pain.
That film lost the unlikely camaraderie and strange chemistry between Mikael and Lisbeth as the narrative sends them on different, loosely connected paths, building a story arc that felt less personal despite the fact it sheds more light on Lisbeth's tragic back story. It wasn't meant to be as self-contained and, in going that route, misplaced the first films' mysterious intimacy in lieu of a more conventional, sensational, political thriller. It's not a bad flick, but it lacked the appeal of the first as well as director Niels Arden Oplev's assured direction.
Replacement director Daniel Alfredson returns to the director's chair for the wrap up, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and he brings the story to a workman-like, but ultimately satisfying conclusion.
Lisbeth is recovering from the gunshot wounds inflicted by her father, Zalachenko, who is also recovering from the axe wound inflicted by Lisbeth at the end of the second film. As they lay in the same hospital, a representative of the secret government group that has been concealing Zalachenko's existence since the '70s finds the arrogant Russian is all too willing to expose the group to save his own skin. Clearly, Zalachenko (and his troublesome daughter) must be eliminated.
Meanwhile, Lisbeth will soon fall into the hands of the police as she's still wanted on multiple murder counts and deemed mentally unstable by the state. Blomkvist works from the outside to build her defense while writing up the story for his investigative rag, Millennium, in order to coincide with Lisbeth's trial. Unfortunately, Lisbeth's innocence can only be proven by going after the members of the secret cabal that has been manipulating events behind the scenes this whole time, which brings Blomkvist and his crack staff into their deadly crosshairs.
I had the same problems with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest as I did with Fire. While I suppose the first film's Nazi underpinnings are fairly sensational, its execution was more cinematic and its mystery seemed more grounded. Fire became more formulaic and conventional while expanding its narrative scope to encompass government conspiracies and nefarious machinations in a way that seemed almost like a potboiler television film-of-the-week. A really good one, but a television film nonetheless.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest continues in that vein, drawing its multitudinous characters and plot threads together with a somewhat plodding execution that still manages a satisfying pay-off. Like Fire, it suffers from a lack of nuance that Dragon Tattoo had in spades but, by this time, I'm still invested enough in the story to be interested in its resolution, despite Daniel Alfredson's no-frills, matter-of-fact delivery.
Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are principally responsible for the engagement one gets from Hornet's Nest and remain on-point in their performances. Rapace lets tiny rays of softness break through the wall of her self-protective stoicism and gives a very measured performance, though Salander as a character spends almost as much time sidelined by the narrative as Blomkvist was in the last film.
Michael Nyqvist wears Blomkvist's character like a comfortable glove, playing the intrepid reporter to a tee, albeit one that can disarm a machine gun toting assassin if the situation demands it. He's as unlikely as Kolchak and though he doesn't chase stories of the supernatural he recalls that pulpy idea of the dauntless journalist who wields his pen to like a rapier for truth, justice and the Swedish way.
It's not a bad film, but like The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest doesn't rise to the bar set by the film that started it all.
I wonder what they'll call the fourth one.
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