In 2020, Quentin Tarantino revealed his top choices for the best films of the 2010s. Coming in at number one was David Fincher’s The Social Network (via Premiere), with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in second. Considering those films combined to win six Oscars, their inclusion on the list made sense. Tarantino surprised many when he selected Unstoppable, Tony Scott’s 2010 thriller starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, as the final film in his best of the 2010s list on an episode of The Rewatchables.
Based on the real-life CSX 8888 incident, Unstoppable follows veteran engineer Frank Barnes (The Equalizer 3‘s Washington) and new conductor Will Colson (The Contractor’s Pine), two railroad workers tasked with stopping a train carrying toxic chemicals. Upon first watch, Unstoppable is a perfectly good film from a master in the action genre. But as you rewatch the film, you start to understand and agree with Tarantino. Unstoppable is a great film, thanks to the innate chemistry between the two leads and Scott’s terrific direction.
I’m not breaking any news by saying Washington is one of the best actors ever. The catalog of Washington’s movies you need to watch is too long to list, even though I’ll quickly mention Malcolm X, Training Day, Glory, and Flight as some of his very best. As great as Washington is as a true leading man, his best work often comes when he can go toe-to- toe with an actor who can match his skill, intensity, and presence. Washington’s top co-stars that come to mind are Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide, Ethan Hawke in Training Day, and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.
Pine may not be as talented as an actor as the three names listed above, but there’s no doubt after watching Unstoppable that he works well with Washington. Pine is excellent as the young, arrogant hotshot forced to work with Washington’s seasoned character. Pine looks and feels like a movie star in every frame, and that’s a credit to Scott. It’s similar to how a younger Washington was presented in Crimson Tide, Denzel’s first collaboration with Scott, where he looked like a true action star. You believed Washington could compete with the star power of Hackman, just like you’re convinced Pine can spar with Washington. Watch the scene where Pine’s character leaps back onto the train and tell me that’s not a star-making moment.
When it comes to action filmmaking, Scott is near the top of the list. Scott is not a perfect filmmaker, but there’s an argument to be made that he has one of the most satisfying filmographies of any director. What do I mean by satisfying? The overwhelming majority of Scott’s movies are highly entertaining, with exciting action set pieces and movie star performances. Top Gun, Days of Thunder, True Romance, Enemy of the State, Man on Fire, etc. These are all effective action movies with redeeming qualities, even if they have some minor imperfections.
Scott never lets the audience catch tits breath in Unstoppable. Once the train starts rolling in the first scene, it only gets faster, as the 98-minute movie feels like a sprint, not a marathon. As the train gets faster, so do the cuts and editing as Scott implements his signature chaotic camera style. Just like the train, Scott’s camera never stops moving. It also wouldn’t be a Scott movie without aerial footage, saturated colors, and high contrast.
Unstoppable was the last film Scott directed before he died in 2012. Scott never lost his fastball in his final outing, something that can’t be said for many filmmakers. Scott plays the hits of what made him one of the best popcorn directors of the last 40 years.
Since Unstoppable grossed $167 million worldwide against a $100 million budget, it’s unfair to say it was underseen. Yet, Unstoppable feels underappreciated for where it falls in the rankings of films from Scott and performances by Washington and Pine. Is Unstoppable in the top five films for Scott or Washington? Probably not. Is it toward the top for Pine? Possibly. Regardless of your rankings, Unstoppable is a terrific action movie from a filmmaker that’s deeply missed.
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