Frank (Denzel Washington: The Book of Eli) is a veteran railroad engineer trying to train up a distracted rookie, Will (Chris Pine: Star Trek). They’ve just hit the main line when they find out a fully loaded runaway train with tankers full of highly explosive cargo — “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building” — is roaring through southern Pennsylvania towns at speeds over 70 miles per hour toward a dangerous S-curve. If somebody doesn’t stop it, the train will go hurtling into a field of fuel tanks and blow a hole in Will’s hometown. So the pair unhitches their engine and races backward to grab the leviathan by its tail and wrestle a million tons of steel and fire into submission.
The movie is inspired by true events, in which an unmanned, 47-car train with a couple cars of highly toxic molten phenol went lumbering through a 70-mile stretch of Ohio in 2001. Heroes in that event (brought in to consult on the movie) used similar tactics to catch and control the train before it reached a hill where it might derail.
Hollywood needs bigger splash, though. So the filmmakers inject more speed, more bumbling and more corporate incompetence — plus a head-on train of schoolchildren, swarming helicopters, car chase, gunfire, Hooters girls, a series of railroad crossing obstructions staged for obliteration and an explosive ultimate target.
In this case, all that added splash amounts to good entertainment. Director Tony Scott, improving on his prior blend of trains and Denzel (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), manages to ram the locomotive through a variety of obstacles without becoming too repetitive or overblown. He proves adept at capturing the chunk, thud, and grind of the railroad for camera, throwing weight behind the punches of sooty action. Sharp filmmaking and effects fuel the chaos with sharp images of peril and power.
Amid the commotion is a neatly executed story. Rivalry between rail yard control room and the railroad company’s corporate office drives conflict and provides a patsy for the sake of fun filmmaking. Scott takes a care to develop empathetic characters with minimal distracting tangents. And while there’s no Oscar-worthy scripting here, the dialogue is not insipid. Frank even wins with blips of smart, earthy wit.
All said, this is a clean-cut action flick that delivers on its promise of spectacle without losing itself by trying to be more than an adventuresome escape. This is fun for anyone hankering for some good old Hollywood crunch.