Despite its misleading title, the schlocky TV movie Disaster on the Coastliner is actually a hijacking thriller, not a disaster epic. Executed competently (albeit without much flair) by director Richard C. Sarafian, who usually made theatrical features, the picture has a solid kitsch factor thanks to the presence of hammy actors including Lloyd Bridges and William Shatner. Furthermore, the fast-moving story ticks off every cliché on the hijacking-flick checklist, so the picture sustains interest even though it lacks anything resembling originality. The premise is the usual contrived hokum. The day the vice president’s wife is scheduled to ride a train from LA to San Francisco, a disgruntled railroad employee mucks with the railroad’s computer-guidance system and threatens to crash the train carrying the vice president’s wife into a locomotive unless officials meet his demands. Overseeing the crisis at the railroad’s command station are noble dispatcher Roy (E.G. Marshall) and uptight Secret Service agent Al (Bridges); their unlikely ally is a con man named Stuart (Shatner), who is on board the train and helps try to prevent the crash. Naturally, all of this is spiked with romantic subplots—Stuart woos Paula (Yvette Mimieux), a housewife who’s ready to give up on her philandering husband—and corporate intrigue. You see, the hijacker has an axe to grind because railroad officials skimped on safety inspections in the past, resulting in tragedy, so newly installed railroad CEO Estes (Raymond Burr) has to pressure his people in order to determine whether the hijacker’s claims have validity.
Even though most of Disaster on the Coastliner is padded with dialogue scenes, the picture pays off nicely with an elaborate action sequence involving helicopters chasing after a runaway train. The control-room scenes with Bridges and Marshall have a fun bickering vibe, with Bridges representing by-the-book rigidity and Marshall representing compassion, and it’s a hoot to see Bridges playing a non-comedic version of a character very much like the lunatic he played in Airplane! (1980). In fact, one of his motor-mouthed Disaster on the Coastliner speeches would have been right at home in Airplane!: “It’s all gone wacko, right? The whole flaky system. You can’t control the train!” With the exception of Shatner, none of the actors in Disaster on the Coastliner breaks a sweat, though each brings the requisite level of comfort-food familiarity. As for Shatner, he seems to have a grand time playing with disguises, courting Mimeux, and climbing atop the runaway train during the finale.
Disaster on the Coastliner: FUNKY