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Film / Unstoppable

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We're not just talking about a train, we're talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!
Connie Hooper, aptly summarizing the plot

Remember those math problems, where train A leaves station A at 45 MPH, and train B leaves station B at 35 MPH, and if the stations are 60 miles away from each other, when will they pass?

Well, those math problems just got a lot more exciting, in this case: Train A leaves Railyard A at 70 mph, with no one at the controls and carrying enough explosive chemicals to level a small town. How long will it take for the heroes to stop it before disaster strikes?

Unstoppable is a 2010 action film starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson, and directed by Tony Scott. It's got a fairly simple plot — a train loaded with hazardous chemicals loses its engineer and runs unmanned across rural Pennsylvania, and train engineers Frank Barnes (Washington) and Will Colson (Pine) have to stop it before it reaches a tight curve and derails in the middle of the large town of Stanton — which just so happens to be Will's hometown.

Unstoppable provides examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Denzel Washington's character is named Frank Barnes; in American Gangster, a prior film of his (which just so happens to have been made by Tony Scott's brother Ridley), there is a character named Nicky Barnes, and Denzel played Frank Lucas.
  • Agony of the Feet: Will gets his foot crushed in the process of coupling engine 1206 onto the back of the runaway. See Duct Tape for Everything below.
  • Badass Bystander: The FRA inspector Scott Werner was scheduled to give a talk to the schoolkids. He is nevertheless able to give concrete, helpful information.
  • Badass Longcoat: Ned's leather trenchcoat.
  • Blatant Lies: Dewey and Gillece attempt to mitigate their letting train 777 "get away" from them and avoid a harsh tongue-lashing from Connie by saying it's only going at 10 miles per hour despite the fact that it very visibly accelerated as soon as it broke loose.
  • Cars Without Tires Are Trains: One of the various attempts at stopping 777 involves Dewey and Gilleece racing alongside it on a parallel track in a Ford F-150 with a draisine rig and trying to jump aboard.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Frank realizes that Will has accidentally cut in some extra rail cars (at least five, according to Frank) for their train. Later he insists that because of that, they're too long for a siding, which control verifies. When they eventually get the train onto a RIP track before the oncoming 777 collides with them, they get all of the cars to safety… except for the last one, which 777 obliterates.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Connie's head welder, Ned, ends up chasing the train with a police escort for the entire movie and doesn't come into play until the very end after you'd pretty much forgotten about him.
  • Chekhov's Skill: While talking with the waitress in the diner at the beginning, Ned mentions that welding always requires precision. At the press conference at the end, when talking about driving Will to the front of 777, he says that it required precision, so he felt like he was right at home.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Note that the locomotives in the runaway train are colored a hellish red while the ones that attempt to stop it are colored a heroic blue.
  • Composite Character: Besides being based on the real people involved in the incident, Barnes and Colson's backgrounds were also combined with other real railway employees in Pennsylvania.
  • Coolest Club Ever: This movie manages to turn a Hooters into this.
  • Cool Old Guy: Frank is a veteran railroad engineer two weeks away from forced retirement, the source of most of the Deadpan Snarker humor of the film, and determined to stop 777 and save people even if that means jumping on the runaway train and running down its length.
  • Cool Train: The film turns a freight train into an angry behemoth.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Downplayed with Galvin. He isn't so much corrupt as he is somewhat incompetent and more concerned with the company's financial standing than the actual threat the train poses. When Connie suggests derailing the train before it hits a populated area, he shoots down the plan on the spot because they've made almost no other attempts to stop it and it would be a massive expense. He refuses to keep her in the loop and cooks up his own plan to airlift someone onto the train while a second engine tries to slow it from the front. When that fails, he goes with Connie's derailer plan, only now it'll happen in a town and be much more destructive. When Frank and Will suggest a much less destructive plan that would risk their lives, he vetoes it and threatens to fire them. He gets his comeuppance when Frank and Will metaphorically give him the finger and refuse to listen to him, causing everyone else on the ground to follow suit and effectively lock him out of the situation. It's implied that he got fired after the whole mess, as Connie was given his job in the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue.
  • Crazy Enough to Work:
    • The plan to use dynamic braking to stop the train by coupling to it from behind only sounds mad. But the movie explains the physics behind it perfectly, so it makes total sense to anyone with even a passing familiarity with physics. This is actually what they did in the real-life incident the film is based on, and it worked.
    • Played straight and then (somewhat amusingly) averted with Galvin's plan to stop triple 7; by having Judd Stewart attempt to slow it down while another employee is lowered down onto the moving train from a helicopter. It doesn't go quite as planned.
  • Determinator: Frank, in pursuit of 777. Lampshaded somewhat when he tells Will that he gives up too easily.
  • Disaster Movie: Arguably. However, the main goal isn't escaping the disaster, but preventing it.
  • Duct Tape for Everything: Bloody foot? Duct tape it. Justified because they're in no position to get Will off the train and taking off the boot could have made things much worse. Frank settled for the "patch it and deal with it later" approach.
  • Easily Forgiven: Will by Darcy at the end.
  • Epic Fail: The portable derailers; they are supposed to be able to derail a train, but the train in question is going so fast that it destroys the derailers and keeps going without slowing down at all.
    Frank: There's a good chance the Derailer won't work.
    Will: It's called a Derailer for Christ sake, that's what they do!
    Frank: (in an explanatory tone) A train that size going that speed (smacks his hands together) it'll vaporize anything in its path.
    Later after Triple 7 blew the derailer apart
    Galvin: What...? What in the hell was 'that'?!
    Connie: That was ten million pounds of train, Mr. Galvin! And this is the sound of me saving your ass! Frank, do you copy? Frank?
    Frank: This is 1206, over?
    Connie: You were right, barely bumped.
    Frank: Ha ha ha.
    Will: (shocked) Jesus Christ.
  • Everybody Lives: Almost. Only one person in the movie dies: Judd, when his engines blow up after failing to slow down Triple 7.
  • The Everyman: Frank and Will are just a train engineer and conductor, respectively, as blue collar as it gets.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Truth in Television — short of putting on the brakes or derailing, nothing stops a train.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The entire film happens over the course of a few hours.
  • Failsafe Failure: The failure to hook up the air brakes on the rest of the train means that when the "dead man's switch" kicks on, only the locomotive brakes would be active, and that's not enough to stop the train. Like the rescue engine's brakes burning up shortly after it coupled and tried to slow the runaway.
  • Fake Static: Used by Frank to end the conversation with Galvin before Galvin can order them not to try their plan.
  • Fanservice:
    • Frank's daughters work at Hooters in order to pay for college. You know what that means... multiple shots of sexy Hooters girls!
    • In the first five minutes, we are treated to Chris Pine lying on a couch in his undies.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Subverted. Frank comes out of it just fine, while Will is in the most danger of the duo.
  • Fauxshadow:
    • Frank's death. He has a picture of his daughters in the train, he retires in three weeks, he calls his daughters to tell them he loves them before chasing 777, and before he leaves to start manually turning on the freight cars' brakes, he says to Will, "Don't get sentimental on me; it makes me feel like I'm gonna die." However, he survives to the end.
    • This quote, from Frank to Will: "This isn't training. In training they just give you an 'F'. Out here, you get killed." Will doesn't die.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Frank and Will do not get along at the beginning of the film. As things progress and they risk their lives to stop 777, they start joking with each other to deal with the stress of the situation, and by the end they seem to be quite good friends.
  • First Day from Hell: Or is it is also called a BAPTISM BY FIRE. The events of the film occur during Will's first day as a train conductor.
  • Flashed-Badge Hijack: Parodied. Ned waves his railroad ID to some police officers and asks for an escort. They point out it identifies him as a welder. "Lead welder." It does work, though, since Ned knows Connie and the officer has spoken to her. About a dozen cars provide escort.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When 1206 attaches to its train at the beginning, Will brings the engine in a bit too fast and it bangs hard against the cars. When hooking 1206 to the back of 777's train, Will misjudges the speed again and 1206 hits the back car too hard, breaking it open a little and sending grain flying everywhere. The poor visibility eventually leads to Will getting his foot crushed and almost falling off the train.
    • The song playing over Ned's introduction scene: "I can get you where you need to go..."
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: Everyone forgets about Judd Stewart and his sacrifice! What a hero.
  • Hate Sink:
    • Galvin is a Jerkass corporate executive who thinks in terms of preventing a PR disaster and monetary loss to the company first and saving lives second and refuses to listen to other people. His own ideas to try to stop the train are a barrage of Epic Fail moments that culminate with Judd Stewart's death and from that point on everybody else in the cast decide to stop listening to him as they do whatever they can to stop the train. The closing montage mentions that he was fired for his incompetence.
    • Dewey is an unpleasant, abrasive worker whose incompetence triggers the disaster in the first place when he leaves the train while it's under power. He gets fired as well and ends up working at the fast food industry.
  • Hell Is That Noise: Every time the camera focuses on train 777, it roars like an angry elephant. Makes sense since the director wanted 777 to sound like a beast. Therefore, he combines real locomotive sounds with real animal roars to give 777 its beastly roar.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: In the actual CSX 8888 incident, it was the railroad company who ordered the eventually successful attempt to stop the train, rather than the attempt being done "against orders" by the train crew. The railroad has also never released the name of the engineer portrayed as Dewey, or what disciplinary action he recieved.
  • Hollywood Restraining Order: Will has one against him by his wife Darcy.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Dewey first fails to hook up the train's air brakes before moving it, then he jumps out of the cab with the train still moving in order to switch the tracks. The end reveals that he was fired for this, and is now working in the fast food industry.
    • When the train suddenly speeds up, instead of thinking to jump onto the rear staircase of the locomotive, Dewey tries to outrun the rapidly accelerating train to get to the front one.
    • Dewey and Gilleece report that the runaway train is only traveling at 10 mph, even though it very clearly accelerated after Dewey left it (which is precisely why his stupid plan above didn't work). It even audibly spooled up to full power while Dewey was right next to it.
    • Will's reaction to his wife's suspicious texting. Sure, Will, bring a gun with you to have a threatening chat WITH A POLICE OFFICER.
    • Galvin's strategy of attempting to slow 777 by having another locomotive or two bash it from the front while simultaneously trying to land marine Ryan Scott on it. Predictably, the poor bastard is flung like a rag doll the second the two diesels hit each other, at the worst possible moment. It would have made much more sense to simply put Ryan on the back locomotive and have it couple to the front.
    • Why didn't either Will or Frank think to use the railcar hand brakes miles before the curve? Or, for that matter, toast 1206's brakes before the curve?
    • In fact, why didn't either of them climb the other cars to get to the lead train? Even if they got past the curve, they'd still be on a runaway train.
    • Who puts gigantic oil storage tanks right under a perilously curved section of track?
    • The crowd surrounding the site in which the 777 was going to be derailed.
  • Indy Ploy: Pretty much every attempt to stop 777. Notably, several of these fail, and others require more Indy Ploys on top of them when something goes wrong.
  • Inspired by…: The "Crazy Eights" train incident in Ohio in 2001. Story can be found on and on Wikipedia.
  • Irony: A train of elementary schoolers heads to a depot to learn about rail safety... and almost gets hit head-on by an explosive runaway.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Gilleece is as unpleasant as Dewey, but does correctly point out some of his mistakes, such as not activating the air brakes.
    • Though Galvin makes a lot of mistakes down the line, his refusal of Connie's derailment plan is perfectly reasonable. Defaulting to causing a disaster, even in open county, is a bit of an overreaction when there hasn't been a single attempt to stop the train safely. Connie's playing it safe, in a sense, because it was the only uninhabited region to safely derail the train.
  • Just Train Wrong:
    • The producers apply a little Artistic License and alter locomotive road names, cab numbers, and some reporting marks on the freight cars. Other than that, it's refreshingly absent. Most everything you see is a real locomotive on real active track moving a real train. The producers also bought several real (albeit retired and partially-scrapped) engines to use for filming.
    • Weirdly, the only real example of it wasn't one of the trains, it was a signal, which was ringing loudly and flashing right before Dewey's Hi-Rail truck clips it and knocks off its door. Position-light signals don't flash between aspects (though sometimes they do blink), and no trackside signal actually has a bell — engineers wouldn't hear it anyway.
    • When the train takes the curve at Stanton, the wheels of the locomotive and many of the cars lift off the rails, only to have every single wheel fall back into place without unlucky 777 derailing. A car can recover from lifting off the ground, but not a runaway train the size of the Chrysler Building. It's simply a case of Rule of Cool.
  • Lampshade Hanging: The Kids in Peril subplot at the beginning of the movie. It was mostly played for laughs, though there were a few scary moments when the kid's train was approaching the siding, with the runaway in sight and bearing down rapidly on them.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The film's tagline is, "1,000,000 tons. 100,000 lives. 100 minutes." The film is almost one hundred minutes long.
  • Leitmotif: The three attempts to get on the locomotive by holding on to the side gets one.
  • Lucky Seven: Horribly, horribly subverted. While it's far from a source of good luck, it's stopped and there's a Happy Ending.
  • Made of Explodium: Justified: The train itself, thanks to the content of some of its railcars. Somewhat less justified: The first attempt to slow the runaway put two engines in front of it, to try and force the whole thing into a siding. The runaway jumped the switch, the uncoupled rescue engines didn't; the resulting impact derailed the rescue engines, which exploded, killing the engineer aboard. While the tanks are filled with volatile diesel fuel and rupturing them can cause fires and explosions, locomotives normally don't go up like Roman Candles when they heel over.
  • Mission Control: Connie and Scott wind up being this for Barnes and Colson.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Denzel Washington and Chris Pine sharing a screen? Yes, please.
  • Nepotism: Frank's coworkers at the beginning scene in the depot imply that Will got hired due to this. Aside from having strong union connections (it is mentioned that he had just been elected shop steward on the union on his first year), three of his family members are already well-established employees within other AWVR facilities.
    Judd: Here, they're shit-canning guys every day, but if you got the right last name and a rookie's pay grade, you got a job.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Advertised as a "kids in peril" film where a runaway train is going to run into another train with young students onboard and Washington and Pines' characters were going to make a Heroic Sacrifice and be Big Damn Heroes. The kids are Put on a Bus 15 minutes into the film and were never in any real danger.
  • Nitro Express: Although here the heroes are attempting to stop a vehicle full of explosives, rather than transport it safely.
  • No Antagonist: There's no bad guy in the movie, just a stupid mistake that puts the train on a potentially disastrous course.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Who thought it would be a good idea for a dangerous railway curve to go right through an oil storage facility?
  • No-Respect Guy: Averted in the film, but the real-life people were given T-shirts and gift vouchers.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: Connie brushes off a call from Ned; later on, he returns the favor.
  • Number of the Beast: Narrowly avoided, though you can tell they were thinking of this trope.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Played straight with Galvin, but averted with Inspector Werner, who realizes he can do more good trying to help the situation than rattle off safety code violations.
  • Oh, Crap!: The look on Connie's face when Dewey informs her the throttle on 777 was set to notch 8 (full throttle) just before he lost it. The look on the engineer's face on the schoolkids' train just screams this, when he sees 777 round a curve in front of him.
  • Outside Ride: At the film's climax, Will jumps from 1206 into the back of Ned's pickup, who then accelerates to 777, allowing Will to jump onto it and stop it.
  • Police Are Useless: Subverted and played straight. The police clear the crossings before 777 approaches and give Ned an escort to chase down the train. However, their attempt to put a Marine on the train fails, and while they attempt to shoot a safety switch to cut off 777's fuel supply, they stop when they realize that it's too close to the actual tank. The police clear out an entire town so that the portable derailer can be used, but the derailer fails. A police car also rolls over.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Will's marital problems are mostly caused by him being a Crazy Jealous Guy in the worst possible way, but the fact that his wife wouldn't tell him about a casual acquaintance is what set him off.
  • Practical Voice-Over: Scene transitions later in the film are often covered by snippets of the sort of continuous live TV coverage, with a reporter explaining what just happened and/or is about to happen or why the most recent plan to stop the train failed.
  • Precision F-Strike: After Connie watches Galvin's attempt to stop Triple 7 with Judd backfires and results in Judd being killed when his lash-up diesels explode following their derailment, Connie is furious at what her superior has done.

    • Heavily averted, as if one listens closely to Will and Frank's in one scene, Will actually drops F-bombs which are concealed by their back and forth arguments.
    • From the looks of it, Ned was holding his in while arguing with Dewey and Gilleece while being asked where the train is. This is practically when Ned realizes the train was going faster than Connie had told him after throwing the switch in an attempt to lead it off the mainline.
    • Only God knows what Galvin was thinking and saying to himself. Whatever it is, he managed to keep his ugliest thoughts in his head as the movie progressed.
    • Averted again if one looks at Dewey's lips as he witnesses his train leaving the yard. In fact, he actually says it, but it is made inaudible in all versions and copies of the film mostly to keep the PG-13 rating and also to mainly make it clear that he screwed up BIG TIME.
    • Practically everyone during the entire situation. It's definite that everyone wanted to drop at least one F-bomb to express their frustration with how ridiculous this entire event is.
    • Ned again when telling Will to hop aboard 777 before they run out of road. He refers to Will as a pussy which is obviously a disguised F-bomb.
  • Race Lift: Frank's real-life counterpart, Jess Knowlton, was white, but is portrayed by Denzel Washington.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Yup. There's a scene where a little girl looks both ways at a crossing just before 777 barrels past (she's okay), and another where a truck with a horse trailer gets caught on the tracks, and the people try to get the horses off the tracks before 777 hits them (the people are okay and the horses are okay; the trailer gets completely destroyed).
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The "Crazy Eights" runaway train incident that the movie is based on had an even more improbable set of circumstances then the movie's runaway train. Sometimes, reality is its own plot hole. It's pretty funny to first look up the real story, then browse the internet for commentary based just on the previews, with people making fun of how ridiculous and obviously contrived the idea was. It's even funnier to see threads people criticizing particular aspects of the movie after they got to see the entire thing, and thus had no excuse for not being able to figure out that the stuff they were criticizing really happened.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Connie does everything she can to help Will and Frank slow 777 down, even against Galvin's orders.
  • Retirony: Frank was being forced into early retirement by the railroad; he received his 90-day warning notice 72 days ago. He lives, though.
  • Right Man in the Wrong Place: Will and Frank end up chasing 777 by pure circumstance.
  • Rule of Three: Someone tries to get on the runaway train three times by trying to hold on to the stairs on the side of the locomotive. The first two times (done by Dewey and his friend) fail. The third time (done by Will after the train passes the Stanton curve) succeeds.
  • Runaway Train: Duh. It's not The Movie, though; there's already a movie called Runaway Train.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Judd; also known as the only person to die in the whole movie.
  • Say My Name: Connie and Will's wife, during some of the tenser moments when things are entirely in the hands of the men on the ground. There's really nothing else they can do.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Frank and Will when Galvin tells them that if they go on with their plan, they'll be fired. Frank is already near forced retirement, while Will is flippant about the threat.
  • Shout-Out: To Silver Streak — an AWVR official named Gene Devereaux is interviewed at one point. Gene Wilder starred in Silver Streak, and the villain was named Roger Devereaux.
  • Shown Their Work: Most of the railroad physics and procedures are spot-on, and followed the Crazy Eights incident fairly faithfully.
  • The Smart Guy: FRA inspector Scott Werner.
  • Stealth Pun: Breaking News! Frank climbing from car to car to activate their brakes.
  • Stock Sound Effects: The instantly-recognizable sound of a locomotive horn is heard at several points for effect, even at times when it makes no sense for any locomotive to be sounding its horn.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: What would happen if 777 crashed, due to the molten phenol in the tank cars.
  • Tempting Fate: "Will it work?" "As long as their brakes hold out." Approximately ten seconds later, there's a Gilligan Cut.
  • Threat Backfire: Galvin threatens to fire Frank if he tries to chase down the runaway train. Problem is, Frank was 18 days away from getting laid off, so he doesn't care if he loses his job a little earlier than he was planning.

    Oscar Galvin: I am not jeopardizing more personnel and more property just because some engineer wants to play *hero*! End of discussion! That train is our property. It's our decision! Now you stop your pursuit, or I will fire you!

    Frank: [chuckles] You already did.

    Oscar Galvin: Already did what?

    Frank: You've already fired me. I received my 90-day notice in the mail... 72 days ago. Forced early retirement, half benefits.

    Oscar Galvin: So you're gonna risk your life for us with three weeks left.

    Frank: Not for you. I'm not doing it for you.

  • Throwaway Country: The town of Arklow was where Galvin wanted to setup the portable derailer.
  • Tim Taylor Technology: Subverted. Gunning the locomotive full throttle in the opposite direction after it's been hooked up to the speeding train would only cause it to lose its grip on the tracks as the main train pulls it along. Alternating power between directions will slow the train down more effectively.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Despite the fact that the train was said to contain some seriously hazardous and flammable material, during both times when derailment of the train was likely (the second time it would have fallen into flammable oil drums), crowds of people were nearby watching instead of getting the hell out of Dodge.
    • There was a minor scene where a little girl was standing too close to the train tracks when the train came rushing by.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The trailers hype the connection to a 2001 runaway train; the actual runaway train went through northwest Ohio, and there were no casualties. And the actual train went nowhere near 70 mph, more like 45 at the most. Two of the film's failed attempts to stop it were also tried in real life (using derailers, and shooting the exterior stop button). The ultimate solution was similar, albeit not effected so dramatically close to a populated area. The train that did the job was driven by an engineer with 31 years of experience (28 in the film) and a conductor with a year's worth (in the movie, it's his first day). The guy who actually got in and stopped it wasn't the young conductor, and he only had to catch up with the train slowed down (by the coupled engine) to 11 MPH. So yeah, real life ignores the Rule of Drama repeatedly.
  • Villain Protagonist: A non-living example. The runaway train is the main threat and the central focus of the film, and is almost treated like the main character.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: what happened to Oscar Galvin? we don't know because his fate isn't mentioned in the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: it's implied he was fired his poor handling of the incident, costing AWVR money and equipment and causing Stewart's death.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Frank is promoted and later able to retire with full benefits and pension. Will reunites with his wife, continues working with AWVR and has a second baby on the way. Connie gets promoted to Galvin's old position, while it's implied Galvin was fired for his poor handling of the incident. Ryan Scott, the Marine dangling from the helicopter who got injured went on to make a full recovery, and Dewey got fired for his blunder and is now working in fast food. So, they all lived Happily Ever After (except Dewey and Galvin).
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: The film's tagline mentioning "1,000,000 tons". Even the largest freight trains top out at about 15,000 tons; for comparison, even a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is only a bit over 100,000 tons. Thinking that they meant "1,000,000 pounds" also doesn't make much sense, as that's only five-hundred tons, less than the weight of two large locomotives.