Monday, December 13, 2010

Unstoppable and Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: Tony Scott’s Train Sets

Here are the key ingredients of a Tony Scott movie: two working class guys, beaten down by the system, have to work together to rescue the innocents in danger. There has to be a hard-driving rock soundtrack. A carful of innocents (bunnies, commuters, little children) barreling toward their doom. A ticking clock keeps everything moving toward the climax. Obsequious bosses making life difficult for the heroes. Somewhere, a police car does multiple rollovers as it speeds to the rescue. And of course trains, big, clanking locomotives or subway cars, to complete his guy-driven train set.

These are movies written for the working man – that species that is especially in danger in our new global economy. These men have wives and daughters who secretly love them but have given over to the female tendencies to nag (and complain about male abuse): only a heroic male gesture like saving a city from death and destruction will return their women to the full flower of love. These hard-working men – whether they work in the grease pits or the control towers – are the overlooked, overworked, and discarded – unemployed and dislodged from their families. These movies make them heroes again, and celebrate the things they love: big, clanking, dangerous machines.

Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

This remake of the Seventies exploitation flick, now on video, stars a now paunchy Denzel Washington (“my, you’re handsome,” comments Travolta’s character with perverse sincerity) as a central dispatcher (“Walter Garger”) in New York’s subway system, overseeing the big board and making sure the train tracks are clear. Today, Denzel gets a call from the conductor of car 123: only it’s not the conductor. It’s John Travolta as “Ryder,” a disgruntled stock broker / ex-con who, along with three cronies, has taken the car hostage. He wants $10M delivered in an hour or he’ll start executing the trapped commuters.

Ryder’s central scheme – that taking a subway car hostage will produce enough fluctuation in the stock market to make him rich – is certainly not based in reality (the stock market would hardly notice such a localized event). But Scott doesn’t really care: the point is that Ryder and Garber become a kind of mirror image of each other: flawed working men who have been held down by those who rule the city, the mayor and the bosses. Garber is under investigation for taking a bribe, and Ryder not only senses Garber’s flaw before it’s revealed, he chooses Garber as the deliverer of his redemption.

As Garber and the mayor and their team rush to get Ryder the money before he executes any more voters, one improbable scenario after another is set up in order to keep the adrenalin flowing. Stupidly, the cops try to transport the money by car (they script even needs to comment on it) just so that we can get our required cop-car rollover. We get car chases, deployed snipers, and lots of slinking around the dank and dark subways system. The key to the movie is filming on location, so we get to see what the real subways look like. That would give this movie the air of authenticity, if it weren’t that both the robber’s schemes and the cops’ responses are totally unrealistic.


Scott seems to have learned from these problems and corrected them in Unstoppable. This time he chooses a “real-life” story and dramatizes the action in a way that actually makes sense. A fuck-up of a conductor jumps off a twenty-five car train with no air-brakes in order to throw a switch himself. In so doing, he lets the train get away from him, and off it goes under its own power, barreling through Pennsylvania at 70 miles an hour. It also happens to have four cars of highly toxic combustible materials, making it a barreling missile headed right for an S curve in Stanton, Pennsylvania, where it’s sure to go flying off the tracks and into a forest of oil tanks (who, by the way, builds oil tanks next to a train S curve? This movie may be most startling in how it reveals the incredibly low IQ of the people who’ve designed our infrastructure).

Welcome back Mr. Denzel Washington, this time as the experienced train driver Frank being paired with rookie Will (played by a three-day-bearded Chris Pine). Both characters are true working class grunts stuck with the bad luck of being the last workers seeing the speeding train go by who may have a workable plan to stop it before the inevitable Stanton doom.

Scott is once more on location – this time in rural Pennsylvania – and there’s certainly no lack of local color or shots of trains speeding through crossings, being chased by cop cars, railroad workers, and assorted helicopters, executives, and ex military. Rosario Dawson this time takes the role of the dispatcher who works with Frank and Will to hunt down and hitch up to the back of the train to slow it down, against the orders of hapless executives and the CEO, who just wants to protect their asses. In this film, the experienced conductor and even the rookie know more about what to do with a speeding train than any of the executives or elites, who only seem to want to fire everybody. We’re lucky our lives are in these people’s hands, Scott is telling us (never mind that it was a blue collar grunt who fucked up the situation and sent the empty train barreling down the tracks in the first place).

Though it’s ultimately a feel-good film for the working class set, Unstoppable gets the story straight enough and keeps the action moving enough to deliver a satisfying thrill ride. Scott is getting better, becoming perhaps the next Michael Bay, able to deliver high-powered movies with rock music and working class themes.

So now that he’s exhausted the train theme (one hopes), perhaps the next Tony Scott movie will take us into the air. After all, few employees are more overlooked and underappreciated than those in TSA.

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