Tony Scott's new film is inspired by real events, but don't let that put you off. This is a film about a runaway train shot with a battalion of runaway cameras, in a haze of what Scott might consider turbo-charged vérité. Rail depots have never looked so macho, a chic and muscular Marlboro Man backdrop shimmering in absurdly perfect winterlight. Sure, there's rumours of truth beneath the clanking metal of high concept - a train with no driver, a payload of toxic chemicals, and a brakeless hurtle into populated regions of lower Pennsylvania - but Scott the younger has pursued every microsecond of big-boned movieness from the proposition. In other words, he sends Denzel Washington and Captain Kirk in hot pursuit.
It is required (by the intransigent laws of movie tradition) they be a mismatched pair, each hiding a flaw to offer the ghost of sub-plots to a singular mission. Widowed train-Yoda Washington is being sidelined, too old to cut it; petulant conductor Kirk has a marriage on the rocks. Mutual distrust will give way to stick-it-to-the-system defiance, Bruce Springsteen lyrics in thick grins and checked shirts. From the opening scenes of weary men setting out for work, the film feels in sure hands. Their chemistry is so much better than formula patter, bristling with Washington's grandiloquent laughter, Pine's brittle veneer, and the script's garrulous mix of grainy rail-speak and hearty man-to-mans on age, marriage, and having your daughters do shifts at Hooters.
Make no mistake, it is a disaster movie literally running on tracks. There's nowhere else to go but down that line and none of Speed's cocktail shaker of romance, thriller and disaster movie parody. Even if hot-controller Rosario Dawson frets into her mic, taking flak from her superiors who just want to save the share-price. Led by Kevin Dunn's purse-lipped suit, the bosses launch their own bound-to-fail rescue attempts, leaving it to our boys, gruff with heroism, to charge down the loco-loco in their own engine, hook it up and apply the brakes in a blizzard of heavenly sparks. Whatever CG glue has been used to trick the impossible, the film has a defiantly real-world presence.
What is it about trains and movies that fits so well? You could greet this as a heavy metal reboot of The General, a coal-country Western where the frontier spirit can yet out-flank the cocky technobrats. As Scott weaves in Fox Network updates as a Greek chorus of crisis-babble, actual events play as a hymn to hard-won experience. The Top Gun veteran, who possibly views himself as an old-timer fending off a new breed of flash-Harry, still has a sublime gift for serenading the brute hulk of American machines. Old school can still win the day.