‘Unstoppable': 5th Time’s a Charm for Washington & Scott

Washington imbues the simplest of lines with subtext and sly humor, and he still has a smile that rivals Julia Roberts’ for its ability to light up a screen

Like a marriage, artistic partnerships change and grow over time. And like a marriage, sometimes it’s for the better and other times for the worse.

Actor Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott have now made five films together, four in the last six years.

As a pair, they just keep getting better.

They first teamed back in 1995 on “Crimson Tide,” the Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer action thriller set on a nuclear submarine. Washington played a U.S. Navel officer who has to prevent his trigger-happy superior (Gene Hackman) from launching missiles at the USSR.

It was proficiently made and a commercial success, but too routine to be featured at length in any compilation of either man’s greatest achievements.

Nine years later, they re-teamed for “Man on Fire.” In this dramatic thriller, Washington played a hitman hired to protect a child (Dakota Fanning). It was notable for Washington’s ability to give unexpected depths to his character and Scott’s enthusiasm for blowing things up, including a scene where, if memory serves, explosives were stuck up a bad guy’s rear and the fuse lit (though the movie’s title refers to Washington rather than this poor slob).

In 2006 came “Deja Vu,” an unintentionally wacky thriller in which Washington’s federal agent travels back in time a day or two to save from being murdered a woman (Paula Patton) with whom he has fallen in love. Or something like that. Chalk it up as a confused miss, both artistically and commercially.

The, last year they remade “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” While their version may not have been an improvement on the worthy, original 1974 movie with Walter Matthau, it was a solid piece of filmmaking. In its favor: a canny performance by Washington as a weary, decidedly middle-aged civil servant, and a couple bravura action sequences (subway trains in a tunnel speeding right toward our hero) by Scott. While generally respectfully reviewed, it grossed a somewhat anemic $65 million in the U.S. (its estimated cost was $100 million).

Which brings me to “Unstoppable,” the duo’s fifth. Here, with maximum efficiency and professionalism, Washington and Scott deliver an entertaining genre film that’s big on action and low on pretension and filler.

Like “Pelham,” this is an action thriller set on a train — though a freight train in rural Pennsylvania rather than a subway in New York City.

The basic plot: Washington plays a veteran, near-retirement conductor teamed with a young, tyro conductor (Chris Pine). Can the two, working together for the very first time, manage to stop an unmanned train loaded with toxic chemicals that’s barreling down the track, heading straight for a populous town?

“Unstoppable” answers that question in a swift, action-filled 90 minutes. The film is smartly made, doling out just enough back story on Washington and Pine’s characters so that viewers care, but not so much that that it gets in the way of the movie’s main plot: halting the runaway train.

Washington again proves what a terrific actor he is, imbuing the simplest of lines with subtext and sly humor. And he still has a smile that, while slow in coming, rivals Julia Roberts’ for its ability to light up a screen.

Scott stages the choo-choo action scenes–including Washington running atop the cars on the moving train–with a sure touch, making new again a filmic trope that dates back to 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery.”

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that part of the pleasure I derived from watching “Unstoppable” is attributable to much of it being shot in the verdant valleys of central Pennsylvania, just miles from where I grew up.

Home is, it would seem in this case, where the action thriller is.