Sunday, September 9, 2012


2008. 111 min. R. Language, bloody violence, torture. Adult situations.
IMDB says... A Trans-Siberian train journey from China to Moscow becomes a thrilling chase of deception and murder when an American couple encounters a mysterious pair of fellow travelers.

The 73rd Virgin says... This is slow and tense with very pretty scenery, convincingly grey and hopeless sets, great acting and sudden bloody violence. The veracity slips a bit near the end.

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are Roy and Jessie, a nice couple from Iowa who do a short missionary trip to China with their church group. Roy is a hardware store owner and Jessie is an amateur photographer who's a little dodgy about having kids and is the edgier and harder-bit of the two. She smokes but never drinks. It's kind of admirable how Harrelson, after years of bad boy or psycho roles, sort of disappears into the sincere nice guy role. He's a smarter version of Woody from Cheers. The bulk of the movie belongs to the other actors.

Since Roy is a train nut with his own set up in the basement, they decide to take the Transsiberian Express from Beijing across Russia to Moscow, on their way home. Here she stands and ponders what they are doing. Later they receive a warning from a French tourist.

Since the cabins hold four, they are soon stuck with Carlos and Abby as cabinmates.  Carlos is charming and obviously on the make; Abby is wary. I would be worried about Abby, what with the eye-liner and all. She appears to be the brains of the outfit. Kate Mara is very good as Abby. Eduardo Noriega should be a bigger star. We will eventually learn that Jessie has a "chica mala" past and, as nice and as in love as Roy is, he occasionally treats her like a rescue puppy. Abby and Jessie bond, and Roy likes everyone.

Since the movie actually began with a drug murder, and since Abby is so cautious, we can guess what happens. Carlos starts trying to melt Emily's butter and arranges to have Roy wander too far from the train at a stop so he is left behind. He also shows Jessie some cute nested Russian dolls he is carrying - to Amsterdam. We expect one of them to open up and be filled with white powder - but it doesn't happen that way.

When Abby learns that the police are checking every train for drugs, she and Carlos get all chummy and decide to get off the train with Jessie and wait for Roy to catch up the next day. In a fine scene we see that Carlos is sloppy and more interested in some tail, while Abby knows the dangers they face. Best of all, in a nice bit of acting and music, Jessie finally clears the air about her past and shows some serious sand. Sand she will sorely need in the next few days.

But only because she's stupid. She leaves her luggage unattended and then agrees to hike out into the snows with Carlos to photograph a crumbling old church filled with Russian Orthodox icon paintings. And then she loses her temper about something and makes things much worse.

There's too much to explain and we're only about half-way through, but in time the ever-sunny Roy picks up a new best friend in the form of Inspector Grinko (Ben Kingsley). I wonder why the inspector is on this train and befriending young Americans. At almost the worst possible time Jessie opens her luggage to a surprise. Kingsley and Mortimer are fantastic in several scenes as they play cat and mouse while Roy joyfully rattles away about trains. There is genuine tension as the always slightly more threatening inspector flips through the photos on Jessie's SD card. Will he see incriminating evidence or not?

Soon there is a crisis as he shows his true colors and the couple find themselves on an abandoned rail branch in extreme danger. In another great scene, Jessie the missionary is forced to lie to her husband, the inspector, the people who are torturing a drug runner because of her lie - everyone - in order to effect their escape. It's all very harrowing.

The finale is rather too unlikely and neat and tidy, but is still exciting and satisfying enough for a superior thriller. It shouldn't have lost 9 million dollars.

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