Dir: Brad Anderson. US. 2008. 111 mins.
The latest entry in Brad Anderson's increasingly fascinating oeuvre is an ambitious thriller set on the Transsiberian train from China to Moscow which recalls train-set thrillers from the 1970s like Silver Streak, The Cassandra Crossing and Murder On The Orient Express, not to mention the greatest train film of them all The Lady Vanishes from which it borrows liberally.
It's gripping, suspenseful and well-acted by a starry cast but is finally let down by a plot which goes spectacularly off the rails in the final act.
Financed like Anderson's last film The Machinist by Spain's Filmax, it is a distinctly European affair, one step up from a Euro-pudding but still awash with different accents and foreign locations that might keep English-speaking audiences away.
Theatrical marketers could construct enticing artwork and trailers based around the exotic, snowbound locations, attractive cast and high drama situations, but the film is bound to work best as a high-end genre item on DVD and pay-TV, where it will deservedly build a loyal following.
Anderson is an accomplished director who understands how to wring tension out of a scene or create it between actors.
His camera weaves up and down the corridors, carriages and compartments of the train and he generates a powerful sense of claustrophobia and various sexual undercurrents between bunks and over vodkas in the restaurant car.
The problem comes in the script, which he wrote with Will Conroy. What starts out as a seductive story of an estranged couple caught up with a mysterious other couple who may or may not be drug smugglers spins out of control into a sub-James Bond-ian action piece in which the couple wakes up on a runaway train at the mercy of a crooked cop and his henchman.
A woman is tortured, trains collide, bullets fly. Any of the subtle intrigue and menace built so carefully by Anderson are crushed in the silliness.
The two chief protagonists are Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer), an American couple who are on their way back to the US after two weeks working on a church-sponsored mission in China. The couple are hitting a rocky patch. He is a warm-hearted fellow who wants to have a family.
She is a woman with a wild past who doesn't. As an attempt to have some adventure, he has booked them on the Transsiberian to Russia, but the train is not as glamorous as they thought it would be, consisting of cold steel carriages, small compartments and hostile staff.
A few stops into the trip, they welcome new room-mates into their tiny cabin - Carlos (Noriega) and Abby (Mara), a handsome young couple who travel the world teaching languages. Carlos immediately comes on to Jessie who resists his attentions.
At one station early in the Russian leg, Roy gets separated from the other three and they stay over one night at the next stop waiting for him.
Jessie and Carlos go on an excursion to an isolated local church and he tries to force himself on her. In her anxiety to defend herself, she accidentally kills him and buries the corpse in the snow.
She returns to the station, gets on the train and carries on with Roy. But they are now joined by a police officer Grinko (Kingsley) and his thuggish partner (Kretschmann) who are looking for Carlos and Abby.
Jessie discovers that Carlos has planted a large consignment of drugs in her backpack and there is no escape from Grinko on the moving train.
For all the nutty twists of the plot, Anderson makes great use of his snowbound locations and the murder of Carlos at the remote church is a chilling centerpiece to the story.
Also working to Anderson's benefit is his excellent cast. Emily Mortimer gives a career-best performance as the troubled Jessie. Harrelson plays the hapless American to perfection, Noriega is as smolderingly sexy as a bad guy can get and Mara is plausibly enigmatic as the amoral Abby.
Alfonso De Villallonga