Frank Barnes got lost on the way to the dining car.

(2010) Action Thriller (20th Century Fox) Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Chapman, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan, Jessy Schram, Lew Temple, T.J. Miller, David Warshofsky, Elizabeth Mathis, Meagan Tandy, Andy Umberger. Directed by Tony Scott

Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington have made five films together thus far, of which this is the most recent to date. They have run the gamut from action classics to just-cash-the-paycheck-and-run. Where does this one fall in?

Frank Barnes (Washington) is a veteran locomotive engineer who after 28 years on the job is being forced to retire in a few weeks. He is breaking in Will Colson (Pine), a wet-behind-the-ears conductor who has family that are high muckety mucks in the union. They are headed out on a freight run that will take them out of Will’s hometown of Stanton, Pennsylvania where his estranged wife Darcy (Schram) and young daughter are sleeping.

Meanwhile, over in a different part of Pennsylvania, Dewey (Suplee), a foul-up of an engineer, does the unthinkable; he leaves his cab while his train is under power to flip a switch. While he’s out, the trains’ throttle slips and begins to pick up speed while the gaping-mouthed Dewey watches. He makes a run to try to get into the cab but falls flat on his tush, much to the amusement of other workers in the yard. That will be the last anyone will be amused by the situation.

The train begins to pick up speed on a deadly course for Stanton. It is also carrying six tanker cars full of molten phenol, an extremely toxic chemical. As yard master Connie Hooper (Dawson) puts it, “it’s not just a train; it’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.” She neglects to add “and it’s heading straight for town!” With an antiquated curve that someone inconveniently put fuel depot tanks next to, a derailment in Stanton would be the biggest catastrophe that Pennsylvania has ever had – since the Eagles choked in the Super Bowl anyway. Cue the music of impending doom.

With corporate stooge Oscar Galvin (Dunn) putting the company’s profits ahead of the human toll that would surely result of a derailment in Stanton next to those fuel tanks, things look grim for the citizens of Stanton. Attempts to get an engineer on board via helicopter fail miserably, as do attempts to derail the train. However, after Barnes narrowly avoids being ploughed into by the runaway, he decides that the only way to avert disaster is to chase after the train backwards, hook it up to his own engine and try to wrest control of the train from the unmanned engine but can he make it in time?

Scott is a very competent director when he is in his element and this one fits perfectly in his comfort zone. He knows how to jack up the tension effectively, and while some of his methods are a bit cliché (A trainload of school children are approaching in the opposite direction on the same track? Horrors!) he at least doesn’t try to call attention to his own directing skills.

Washington has aged gracefully (which not all movie stars do) and has played this kind of working class hero many a time. He brings the right mix of gravitas and humor to the role, and reminds us once again just why he is one of the top stars in Hollywood. That Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot) not only holds his own with Washington but actually makes his own mark leads me to believe that Pine is no one-trick-pony and could have a career in Hollywood comparable to Washington’s.

Dawson is one of those actresses who always seems to put on a good performance no matter what genre she’s doing or what kind of character. Here she’s a frustrated manager who knows that the people above her are corrupt and/or ignorant; eventually she just throws her hands up and allows Frank and Will to access their inner hero.

The movie contains very little CGI, which is rather refreshing. The trains look like trains and not like those created by CGI. Often, modern directors over-rely on computer graphics, confusing realism with real. Obviously, not a problem here. The action sequences of the train demolishing cars and derailers are pretty impressive, and again are mostly done with real trains.

This is the kind of movie that makes for a pleasant 90 plus minutes of entertainment. You don’t have to think too much and you don’t have to do much more than munch your popcorn and slurp your soda. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Perhaps that was a bad choice of words…

REASONS TO GO: Scott and Washington are old hands at this kind of action thriller. Pine holds his own with Washington which is no easy feat.

REASONS TO STAY: There are a few action clichés here which will remind audiences uncomfortably of The Taking of Pelham 123.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little coarse language and some action violence. This is perfectly fine for most older kids and teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Stanton Curve” depicted in the film actually exists as a rail line in Belaire, Ohio where the line runs on a historic elevated viaduct just after crossing the Ohio River. However, the fuel storage tanks shown in the film had to be added optically; nobody in real life is irresponsible enough to put fuel tanks in a location where a derailing train could impact into them and cause a devastating explosion – at least, I hope so.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a big bad action movie; to get its full effect you should see this in a darkened multiplex, preferably stuffing your face with popcorn, candy and soda. Hey, they’re all bad for you – why start feeling guilty now?


TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1


Deja Vu

Deja Vu

In the aftermath of a disaster, Denzel Washington works the evidence.

(Touchstone) Denzel Washington, Jim Caviezel, Val Kilmer, Bruce Greenwood, Matt Craven, Paula Patton, Adam Goldberg, Donna Scott, Elle Fanning, Elden Henson, Erika Alexander. Directed by Tony Scott

Have you ever gotten the feeling that you’ve seen a movie before, even as you’re watching it for the first time? It’s not necessarily something a filmmaker wants their audience to feel, but sometimes there’s no help for it.

It’s Fat Tuesday in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the Algiers ferry bound for the Crescent City is full of sailors and partygoers bound and determined to have a great time. Not too far into the voyage, a car on the ferry explodes, setting off a chain reaction and a second, more damaging explosion and the Ferry goes down to the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain. The catastrophe kills men, women and children in a city which is already reeling from a hurricane that has all but destroyed it.

ATF investigator Doug Carlin (Washington) is called to the scene to determine whether the explosion was a deliberate act. While the FBI, local police and other agencies are squabbling, Carlin – possessed of a cat-quick mind and the ability to instantly see the compelling evidence – quickly determines that the cause of the explosion was, in fact, a bomb, making it a deliberate act of terrorism.

Carlin’s style irritates some of his colleagues, although FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Kilmer) finds him amusing and impressive. Pryzwarra’s boss (Greenwood) agrees and when a burned body washes up onshore in an area that would put it in the water a full two hours before the Ferry disaster, the FBI and Carlin realize that the key to solving this mystery lies with finding out what happened to the beautiful woman (Patton) lying on the coroner’s table. To do this, Carlin is brought into a highly sensitive experiment that may allow a quick-thinking investigator like Carlin a second chance at seeing what really happened, but also change his life forever.

Scott and Washington are reunited for the first time since the two made Crimson Tide and the stylish Scott knows how to use his leading man ably, even though Denzel is getting a little bit long in the tooth for these kinds of roles. The premise of by observing the past being able to affect it is one not new to science fiction literature or movies (heck, “The Twilight Zone” basically made a living on just that kind of conundrum) and in all honesty, Déjà Vu doesn’t add anything new to the dance.

However, Tony Scott is an adept action director and he doesn’t disappoint here, with a chase scene that has the two cars in different time periods, with Washington unable to see the car he is chasing and being guided along by his team back at the appropriately grungy looking lab. The climactic scenes pitting Washington and his love interest against the bad guy (a very un-Christlike Jim Caviezel) are played with appropriate tension. A lot of directors could take lessons from Scott in that regard – it’s not as easy a skill as it seems.

Scott is blessed with a very talented cast, including the criminally under-used Matt Craven as Carlin’s partner – this is an actor who deserves meatier roles – and also reunites Washington with Greenwood, both of whom got their starts on the “St. Elsewhere” television show so many years ago.

To the bad is the one bugaboo that plagues these kinds of time-tripping sci-fi actioners – the tendency for the plot to get muddled and confusing. Scott trumps this by making his characters real and then casts interesting actors to play them – Goldberg is particularly nifty as a science geek, and Patton makes a gorgeous corpse, but also a mighty fine love interest. The resolution seems a bit forced, but then if you think about these things too hard you can get migraines.

I kind of regret missing this in the multiplex, although it looked just fine on our medium-sized bedroom TV screen. To be fair, this isn’t a movie that’s really out to break new ground. It just wants its audience to have a good time, and at that, it’s successful. If you’re looking for something to rent that satisfies your Jones for action, you could do worse than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice action sequences highlighted by some very big booms – gotta love things that blow up real good. The cast is top-notch. The climactic scenes ratchet up the tension.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot can be hard to follow. While tense, the resolution seems a bit forced and contrived.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and some sensuality but otherwise okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While the movie was in pre-production, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, forcing the producers to make a decision to shoot elsewhere, a move that director Tony Scott resisted. In the time that it took to reboot the production, New Orleans had recovered sufficiently to allow shooting there and pre-production resumed, allowing Deja Vu the distinction of being the first movie to film in New Orleans post-Katrina.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Surveillance Window feature allows the director commentary to be fleshed out with video sequences that may also be viewed separately.


TOMORROW: Everybody’s Fine

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

The Taking of Pelham 123

Even in a crowd, John Travolta stands out.

(Columbia) Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Michael Rispoli, Victor Gojcaj, Ramon Rodriguez, Aunjanue Ellis, Gary Basaraba, John Benjamin Hickey, Alex Kaluzhasky. Directed by Tony Scott.

We never know what awaits us when we walk out our front door every morning. Maybe it will be a good day, maybe a bad one. Maybe it will be an extraordinary day.

New York subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington) is having a bad day. He’s been demoted from a management position for the New York Transit Authority to dispatching trains because of the suspicion that he took bribes. He has to put up with the abuse from a nasty mid-level manager (Rispoli) and the stress of the upcoming trial hangs over him like a cloud.

A strange voice comes over the microphone for the train Pelham 123 where his buddy, Jerry Pollard (Basaraba) should be. It’s a man calling himself Ryder (Travolta) informing him that he and a group of armed men have taken the train and are demand a $10 million ransom to be delivered in an hour. After that, one passenger will be executed for every minute the ransom is overdue.

The mayor (Gandolfini), a lame duck going through a marital scandal of his own, turns out to be remarkably helpful and tolerant, not at all the way New York mayors have been portrayed onscreen these days. A patient hostage negotiator (Turturro) tries to help, but Ryder and Garber have formed a strange connection. As time ticks down and the city races against the clock to save the hostages, a relationship forms between Ryder and Garber, which will inevitably lead to a showdown that only one will walk away from.

Based on a 1974 movie starring Walter Matthau (as Garber) and Robert Shaw (as Ryder) – itself based on a John Godey novel – Pelham reunites director Scott and Washington, who have also done Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Déjà vu to name a few. Whereas Matthau was rumpled, cynical and tough, Washington is basically a good-hearted heroic sort who made a mistake and is paying for it. While Shaw was icy and cool, Travolta is loud, angry and not very different from his character in Broken Arrow.

Perhaps it was a mistake, but I watched the 1974 original the night before I saw the remake. Whereas the original was gritty and realistic, the new one is sleek and modern. The 1974 edition had a loud, abrasive jazz score; the 2009 version is more traditionally scored. The first Pelham was low-tech and relied on characterization and tension for its thrills; the second uses digital effects and bigger car crashes to set the tone (although the 1974 version’s iconic car crash was quite elegant).

So is the first version better than this one? I think so, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. They are definitely different movies meant to appeal to different audiences. Some of the twists in the first Pelham were telegraphed whereas I have to admit that wasn’t the case in the new one. Director Scott is a veteran action director and while this isn’t going to be regarded as one of his best, it’s still solid and extremely watchable. The problem I have here is that he often uses stylized camera tricks such as slow-mo helicopter travelling shots, or cameras that spiral around their subjects. It’s annoying and unnecessary. Washington and Travolta are both dependable performers and while you don’t get the sense of their character’s soul as much as you might like, I’d rather see these two in mediocre performances than a lot of other actors at their best.

This is definitely a Hollywood action film, with all that is good and bad about the genre. If you like that sort of thing (and I do), I guarantee you’ll go away entertained. If you prefer thrillers to action movies, you might do better to rent the original than see this. This movie won’t blow you out of the water, but it will accomplish what a lot of movies fail to do – it won’t make you regret plopping down the ten bucks to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: A slick Hollywood action movies with some very nice scenes. Washington and Travolta aren’t at the top of their game, but their game is such that even a sub-par performance by either is worth checking out. Gandolfini makes a great mayor.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken in the action movie genre. There is more brawn than brain to this movie. Scott succumbs to “look-ma-I’m-directing” disease.

FAMILY VALUES: Some blue language, a couple of cold-blooded killings but otherwise suitable for older kids..  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first name of Denzel Washington’s character was changed from Zachary to Walter in honor of Walter Matthau, who played the role in the original film.