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Monday, August 27, 2012

Disaster Feature #4 - Unstoppable

I'm about a week late with mentioning this news, but by now I am sure that you have heard about the tragic death of veteran film director, Tony Scott.

Tony Scott took his own life the afternoon of August 19, 2012 by leaping off of the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles. He was just 68 years old.

At this point in time, it is unclear as to what the motivation was behind Scott's suicide. At first, media outlets had reported that Scott had an inoperable brain tumour, and that it was speculated that he took his own life rather than undergo chemotherapy and radiation to ease his physical allegation that his widow, Donna, denied was true.

Regardless, a woman is left without a husband, two children are left without a father, and the world was left mourning the loss of a talented director.

Now, Tony Scott's foray into making films wasn't too much of a stretch. His older brother Ridley has been a film director for many years, directing such films as “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, “Thelma & Louise”, “Gladiator”, and “Black Hawk Down”.

And for the final entry for August's Disaster Film month in the Monday Matinee feature, I really wanted to focus on a disaster film that was directed by Tony Scott, not only to celebrate the contributions that he made to the film industry, but to showcase at least one of his works.

The problem that I had to come up with was choosing the movie.

I mean, I had previously done an entry on Tony Scott's 1986 film masterpiece “Top Gun”, so that one was immediately off the table. Besides, it wasn't really what one would classify as a disaster movie. Beverly Hills Cop II was also off the table, as I had previously done the original film a month before. And again, it's not exactly a movie that I would call a disaster movie.

In fact, that seemed to be the case with a lot of Tony Scott's movies. None of them really seemed to fit the disaster movie theme that I wanted to focus on this month. “Days of Thunder” isn't a movie that fits the idea of a disaster film. Nor did “Enemy of the State”, or “Crimson Tide”. Certainly not “True Romance”.

In case you couldn't tell, I was struggling in a big way, trying to choose an appropriate movie to honour Tony Scott, yet keep with the theme.

But then as I was beginning to lose hope, I remembered that towards the end of Tony Scott's career, he had been making movies that could fall under the genre of action thrillers...and I thought to myself...hmmm...some action thrillers could double as disaster films.

And, sure enough, the last two films credited to Scott were perfect. I could choose between 2009's “The Taking Of Pelham 123” and 2010's “Unstoppable”. To help me decide, I flipped a coin.

And it landed tails.

So, because of that coin flip, we're looking at the movie “Unstoppable”, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. I suppose luck was on my side, since reviewers tended to favour “Unstoppable” over the other one.

And what a film “Unstoppable” was. It happens to be a movie about what happens when a runaway train goes out of control, as well as the effort to try and stop it before it causes serious death and destruction.

What makes this movie great is the fact that the plot was based from a real-life event.

The event that the movie is based on took place in the state of Ohio in May 2001. The event was known as the CSX 8888 incident (or the Crazy Eights incident), named after the locomotive that led the runaway train.

On May 15, the train departed from Walbridge, Ohio enroute to Toledo. The train was made up of 47 cars in total, and some of the cars contained gallons of hazardous materials. For the first few miles, the train chugged along towards its destination without incident. But when the engineer of the train climbed out of the locomotive while the train was still in motion to correctly line a track switch, things began to go pear-shaped.

Due to a misaligned switch, as well as a failed attempt to apply the locomotive's dynamic brake, combined with the fact that the throttle was set to 100%, the train accelerated at an alarming rate, rendering the train completely out of control. Fortunately, that incident had a happy ending, as the train was successfully stopped before it derailed, which would have spilled toxic waste all over the ground.

I could go on and on about this incident, but I won't because it's not really what I want to talk about. I was just reiterating the fact that “Unstoppable” was based off of this story. Just click below if you want to read the final report of this incident.

Now, let's take a look at the plot of “Unstoppable”...or, at least the first part of it, since as you know, I never reveal movie endings, to see where the similarities between the two incidents occur.

When the film begins, we are immediately introduced to two men who work for the Allegheny and West Virginal Railroad (AWVR). We meet veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) who is training the newest conductor, Will Colson (Pine) as both of them use AWVR locomotive #1206 to pick up a few train cars near Stanton, Pennsylvania. It goes well until the two men realize that they picked up five extra cars. Will suggests that they back up the train to uncouple the extra cars, but Frank decides to continue ahead with the extra train cars.

At the same time, near the town of Fuller, two more employees of AWVR are ordered to move another freight train off of the track it is sitting on to clear a pathway for an excursion train, carrying dozens of school-aged children.

The locomotive of the train happens to be see a similarity here?

Anyway, the two men, Dewey (Ethan Suplee) and Gilleece (T.J. Miller) perform the task, albeit with lots of shortcuts. Dewey is especially negligent with his duties, instructing Gilleece to leave the hoses that helped operate the locomotive's air brakes disconnected, as the trip would be short. Then, while the cab is in motion, Dewey leaves the cab to throw a misaligned switch along the train's path, but because the train's throttle jumps from idle to full power, Dewey is unable to climb back on, setting the stage for disaster.

Dewey does report the incident to Fuller yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), who orders Dewey, Gilleece, and Ned Oldham (Lew Temple) to intercept the train at a siding, but when they arrive at the siding and no train passes through, the trio quickly realize that the train controls have defaulted to full throttle, and is now speeding out of control on the main line.

An attempt is made to stop the train by Connie, who manages to successfully divert the excursion train to a side track, reporting the runaway train to Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn), the vice-president of train operations for AWVR. With Connie working with local police to ensure that all train crossings on the train's path are secured, it becomes clear that stopping the runaway train is top priority, especially after safety inspector Scott Werner (Kevin Corrigan) informs the team that the train contains molten phenol that could potentially kill thousands of people if the train derailed and spilled its contents. Connie comes up with a plan to derail the train in an area of isolated farmland to minimize the casualties, but Galvin rejects the plan, believing that they can stop the train before. But when one attempt to do this causes an explosion that kills an engineer, the situation gets shifted into seriousness.

At this point, the runaway train is splashed all over the news, so it's only inevitable that Frank and Will soon hear about the train, and are actually fairly close to where the train's path is. They are warned about the train, and make an attempt to stop the train using the siding plan, but because of the five extra cars that Will added onto their train, they are forced to head onto a longer Repair-in-Place track further north. They make it onto the track just as the runaway train speeds by, destroying the rear car of Frank and Will's train. Despite this, the train still continues on, but Frank notices that the rearmost car of the speeding train is equipped with an open coupler. Frank also learns of Galvin's plan to stop the train, which is to use derailers to stop the train. It's a plan that Frank knows will not work, instead instructing Will to help him with unhooking the cars from locomotive #1206 and runs it long hood forward to catch up to the #777 from behind. Despite Galvin's insistence that he will have the jobs of both Frank and Will if they continue with their plan, Frank pays no attention, revealing that he had already been forced into early retirement by AWVR. Connie and Scott are also on the side of Frank and Will, going against Galvin to support the two men in their pursuit of the train.

Really, this film is a thriller right from the very beginning, and the sub-plots (Will and his wife being separated for instance) help us get to know the characters better. I know when I was watching the film, I was actively rooting for the good guys of the film, and the character development was quite good (well, at least in my opinion anyway). You'll just have to watch the movie for yourselves to see what I mean.

If anything, “Unstoppable” was Tony Scott's last great film, and despite the fact that the movie's title is sadly ironic given Scott's ultimate fate, it is a credit to all of Tony Scott's films. They were action oriented movies that really fleshed out character development. Is it any wonder why his films are usually held in such high regard?

Rest in peace, Tony Scott.  

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