The best compliment I can pay Tony Scott's film is that it's SPEED on a train. Once the runaway train starts rolling the suspense just keeps climbing to the very end. This is one of Scott's best films for its craftsmanship alone.
Trainer conductor Dewey (Ethan Suplee, MALLRATS) leaves his train thinking the breaks are on, but he was wrong. His expression as the train starts down the track without him tells it all. The nearly half mile long train is in full throttle racing away at over 70 miles per hour headed toward heavily populated areas. Its cargo is highly toxic.
Meanwhile, Frank (Denzel Washington, TRAINING DAY), a veteran engineer, is going about his day, breaking in a rookie conductor named Will (Chris Pine, STAR TREK). After a stop, Frank notices that Will miscounted the number of cars, so they're carrying extra weight. This becomes more than a minor goof when they discover they're on a head on collision course with the runaway.
Scott and writer Mark Bomback strategically build the obstacles. A train filled with kids on a field trip. Daring attempts to board the runaway. Near misses. Sharp curves on elevated tracks. The filmmakers use all the tools from editing to sound to plotting to make us feel the destructive power of the train with no one at the helm. By the time Frank and Will get directly involved in the crisis, we know what they're up against.
The script and Scott's direction are models of efficiency. In quick fashion, they make us care about Frank and Will. Washington, who has been working with Scott a lot recently in such films as MAN ON FIRE and TAKING OF PELHAM 123, is great at playing blue collar everymen. Here he's a man with experience who is being forgotten for younger cheaper workers, i.e. Will. Pine's character is a guy whose life is beginning to runaway from him. He's preoccupied with family problems, which makes him prone for mistakes. We can relate to that.
In addition, to the main characters, we have a full supporting cast that helps bring in exposition and drama. Connie (Rosario Dawson, GRINDHOUSE) is the chief at the shipyard where the runaway came from. She's trying to fix the problem, but her boss doesn't want to hear from the person who created the problem. That boss is Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn, TRANSFORMERS), who's that venerable action villain -- the corporate hack who puts profit before people. Kevin Corrigan (WALKING & TALKING) as a safety inspector, Kevin Chapman (MYSTIC RIVER) as a dispatcher and Lew Temple (WAITRESS) as the chief welder all play their roles in providing useful information, heightened tension and a dose of humor.
Scott uses news coverage, rescue helicopters and a dispatch board to keep the viewer keenly aware of where the various trains are in comparison with each other. His camera is always moving, giving even the most perfunctory scene a sense of urgency. The stunt work and practical special effects give it realism. While the film certainly deserved its Oscar nod for sound editing, I'd purpose that film editors Robert Duffy and Chris Lebenzon deserved similar accolades for keeping this one on track. Pun intended. All together it's a perfect collection of classic and modern action movie making.
While Washington and Pine receive top billing, the trains are the real stars. One gets a sense that the film knows its star and the world its from very well. The human actors are part of that world. We are captivated by them doing their jobs, which on this extraordinary day could save hundreds of thousands of lives.