Director Tony Scott must have had a lot of fun directing his last film The Taking of Pelham 123 – an action thriller about a train careering through the subways of New York. A year later and he’s back on the tracks – this time with a monster of a locomotive at the centre of the story: a runaway freighter a kilometre long, a metal beast of a protagonist stacked with hazardous chemicals rushing headlong towards a densely populated town.
Teaming up once again with Denzel Washington, Scott creates a gritty, hard-man, blue-collar atmosphere for this linear thriller, and you can almost smell the steel and grime of the rail yards of urban Pennsylvania where Frank (Washington) has been working for more than 25 years. When rookie Will (Chris Pine) turns up to share a train with Frank the two men clash egos and head out for another tough day on the railroad, unaware of what’s in store further down the track. Heading straight towards them is the out of control monster, let loose on full throttle by a mix of incompetence and bad luck. Of course it’s up to the two men to work out their differences and pull off the heroics needed to prevent some serious destruction.
Inspired by the real 2001 story of a runaway train in Ohio, Scott livens up the drama the way he knows best – with plenty of gratuitous chase and crash scenes, and adds an emotional strand through the back-stories of the two heroes. Frank is a single father who has fallen out with one of his daughters, and Will has recently and unhappily separated from the woman he loves. The two families, along with various railroad employees trying to help, are brought into the drama via mobile phone and walkie-talkie.
Although Scott manages at times to build incredible tension, the film plays out like the train itself – in one direction, hard, fast and predictable. The constant use of media reporting to make sure we all know what is going on (TV camera crews follow the train in helicopters) is grindingly annoying, and Washington and Pine have little real work to do other than go along for the ride. Yet it is highly accomplished filmmaking, showing Scott’s meticulous attention to cinematic detail, the frame always pulsing with movement. It’s also carefully controlled storytelling – Scott dishing out the action & the emotion in manageable bite sized chunks for what is ultimately a boys’ tale of save the world and get the girls.