Harry Gregson-Williams latest paring with director Tony Scott offers up a solid action score that evokes the bombast of the director’s action films, and fleeting moments of peace characters enjoy before Something Horrible and Deadly occurs Very, very Soon.
Scott’s films are excesses of style, which sometimes yield engrossing thrillers – Man on Fire (2004) – or indulgent duds like Domino (2005), deadened by soulless characters and mindless psychotic editing. The orchestral middle ground is Spy Game (2001), where Gregson-Williams splintered sounds were used to their most powerful amid chorals, heavy strings, and pinched techno beats.
Unstoppable is formulaic, and musically it’s Spy Game lite (right down to the reverse-processed keyboard chords), but it hits all the right dramatic markers one expects in both the film and the corresponding score. A steady beat symbolizes another working day for a blue collar train engineer and conductor, as well as the machinations of loading, prepping, and getting a train ready for its delivery of toxic chemicals.
A lilting piano phrase adds a bit of humanity for the lead characters that will soon become plastic action figures, and imparts a sense of simpatico with audiences, as they too have personal flaws and imperfect social lives. Thunderous booms accent both the machinations of the first act – the deadly cargo is almost loaded up, the drama’s passing its first point of no return – and audiences are set for what’s ostensibly a full action score.
Gregson-Williams’ pounding percussion textures are among his strongest stylistic traits, and “Ned” is filled with a cluster of rock and ethnic hits with squealing electric guitar, and brief waves of strings that symbolize a fleeting sense of humanity.
“Dewey” illustrates the near-perfect sonic transitions Gregson-Williams employs in engineering tones which move from clean strings to electric feedback, and bass feedback symbolizes the increase of danger as the two characters are forced to exercise more desperate and dangerous measures to stop the out of control train.
It’s around “Not a Coaster” where Gregson-Williams takes the high-register guitar riff of “Ned” are turns it into an element symbolic of potentially cataclysmic danger, pitting the repeated 3-note motif against reflexive bass tones, rising strings, and sonic echoes which pepper the stereo spectrum before Gregson-Williams slams down another deep-welled bass groove.
The reason the guitar riff is important at this stage is because parts of the film were clearly tracked with the opening bank robbery cue (“Why So Serious?”) from The Dark Knight, and rather than mimic the cue, Gregson-Williams opted to take its most dynamic elements and gradually incorporate them into the score, first as part of a collage, later as motifs (“Realign the Switch” has the bass & percussion slams and trailing guitar squeal; “Playing Chicken with Trains” is largely the rising electrified squeal), and finally bringing the key elements together for the score’s longest cue, “The Stanton Curve,” which is probably the scene where the Hans Zimmer-James Newton Howard cue was tracked.
Gregson-Williams’ approach works, making his slight variation less jarring, but it symbolizes the problem composers have when directors and editors cut a scene to a temp track, and demand something similar, since they’ve fallen in love with the thing.
The only downside to the album is Gregson-Williams gets only one more cue before the CD’s end, which isn’t enough to bring listeners back to the composer’s own world and respective themes. The Spy Game CD may have had two or three too many end cues, but it ultimately brought the score to a more fulfilling close.
Unstoppable is guaranteed to get regular play from fans of the composer’s action writing, but it should’ve been a longer, meatier album.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan