On the Third Day of Die Hard, My True Love Gave To Me...
A Runaway Freight Train
How do you have a Die HardThe 1980s were famous for the bombastic action films released during the decade. Featuring big burly men fighting other big burly men, often with more guns, bombs, and explosions than appear in Michael Bay's wildest dreams, the action films of the decade were heavy on spectacle, short on realism. And then came a little film called Die Hard that flipped the entire action genre on its head. movie without any terrorists? That's a question absolutely no one asked until today, but the answer is Unstoppable, the last feature-length film from director Tony Scott before his death. It's not a good movie, but it is fun, and it feels very much like a latter-day Die Hard film (from the era when they started pairing John McClane up with any one of a number of buddy-cop sidekicks). It's a big, dumb action movie like the best of the overblown 1990s films, just made twenty years later and on a pretty substantial budget.
It really shouldn't work, to be honest. It's too big, too dumb to have been made and released when it was, certainly not on the big screens and with an all-star cast. But it exists, and it really did come out like a tent-pole feature from 20th Century Fox films. I don't have any clue why a studio decided this was a great flick to release, but the fact of the matter is that it does, in fact, fill a hole I never realized needed to be filled -- I needed to know what it would take to make a Die Hard film without any villains, and the answer is, in fact: human stupidity.
In the film, two train yard workers -- Ethan Suplee as Dewey and T. J. Miller as Gilleece -- fail to secure a train properly and it gets away from them. A half-mile long train, loaded with goods, and suddenly traveling at speeds over 30 MPH, loose on the rails and with a very definite point where it's likely to derail, right on a big curve dead in the middle of a city. If it crashes, it'll drop explosive chemicals, and well as other awful products, right onto a chemical warehouse, and that will cause a chain reaction that will likely kill millions. Something has to be done before all those lives are lost.
Meanwhile, coming at the train from the other direction are two train workers -- Denzel Washington's grizzled old Frank Barnes and Chris Pine as recent hire Will Colson -- driving their own train as part of their day-to-day. Once they get word of the runaway train, though, they detach themselves from their load and start going back after the runaway train, trying everything they can to stop the "unstoppable". It's two men against a giant train for the fate of a fair city.
As should be obvious from me comparing this film to Die Hard, in construction and style this film feels like a buddy cop movie. Naturally, there's no one for them to arrest (although I'm sure the two idiots that lost the train also lost their jobs soon after the credits rolled on this flick), they still have a job to do and they know the stakes involved if they fail to get the job done. Essentially an entire town is held hostage by a runaway train, and these two guys, like in any Die Hard are at the wrong place at the right time. It's them or no one, essentially.
In fact, if you look at how the movie is setup, you have to characters that have direct counterparts to characters in a Die Hard film. I'm thinking specifically of Live Free or Die Hard, with the grizzled John McClane being paired up with the young hacker, Matt Farrell. Here, we have the older, wiser Washington and the young Pine working together, and bickering a lot in the process, but the dynamic is remarkably similar.
One key difference between this film and the fourth Die Hard is the better cast, of course. Honestly, Bruce Willis has been coasting for most of his latter career, but where that actor can phone in all his later Die Hard performances and still get paid, Denzel invests in his role as the older train worker, Frank Barnes, and he really helps ground the movie. Pine too is great, although honestly I've never seen a film where he isn't great; the films around him might be terrible (this one included, frankly), but he always delivers a charismatic and enjoyable performance. The fact that this film works as well as it does is a testament to these two actors.
At the same time, credit is due to director Tony Scott. This is a big, dumb movie which, admittedly, was kind of his specialty (I'm thinking of movies like The A-Team, Enemy of the State, and even "Five Days of Die Hard" entrant The Last Boy Scout). His movies might not be smart but they're all well made, and this is one of the best made films I've ever seen from the director. It's so slickly crafted, with long, moving shots and sweeping direction that it's hard to notice how patently stupid the actual film really is. You get caught up in the moment and are invested in everything that happens, despite it being, quite literally, on rails.
This film is, really, an experience. The train is only capable of going one way, mind you, so there are literally no surprises about anything it does. Everything the train will do is a foregone conclusion, so the only thing that matters are the two men and how quickly they can get from Point A to Point B (or, really, by the way the film is built, Point B to Point A and then back to Point B). And yet, despite all this, it's kind of a thrill ride, and that's all because the actors invest in it and the director sells the absolute shit out of the movie. It's that good that it almost manages to cover for the fact that there's barely any actual movie here.
I've seen the film twice now and both times I've managed to get caught up in it. I know what's going to happen, and it's so linear that anyone coming into the movie will also know everything that happens. It's not just that the train can only go in one direction, but that this is a film rooted in the action films of the 1990s, so we know all the plot beats, all the ways the film will operate. Both men are basically built out of the mold of John McClane, grizzled, down-on-the-street guys who are on the outs with their families (Barnes with his two daughters, Colson with his wife). So, of course, they'll be successful in their "impossible" task and, through their heroism, they'll magically patch things up with their families despite never actually talking through any of their problems. It's by-the-numbers, rote and idiotic.
And I don't care! It's just that crowd-pleasingly good. It's brash, it's bold, it's propulsive. It's everything I want in an action film from the 1990s, it' just had the bad luck to come out two decades later. And yet, despite that, I still enjoy the film. I don't know if this is really the best film to highlight Tony Scott's oeuvre -- certainly it's not a film any director would really want to go out on -- and yet it feels like a perfect summation of his filmography. This is Tony Scott through and through, and it shows just how good that director was. He could sell a film this dumb and make it great. Now we need to go and find some of his good films to watch instead.