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Hot director Brad Anderson (The Wire; The Machinist) puts together an impressive suspense thriller in Transsiberian. Anderson's story tends toward predictability but his good direction of a talented cast gets us to invest in his atypical characters. And location filming in Lithuania provides an exotic atmosphere that compensates for many a plot weakness.
Transsiberian had a brief U.S. release in July after earning enthusiastic responses at film festivals; it's now playing in European theaters. First Look is releasing it in simultaneous DVD and Blu-ray disc editions.
Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play Roy and Jessie, an American married couple finishing up a few weeks as church volunteers in Beijing. Roy owns a hardware store in Iowa and is a huge fan of trains; after spending her twenties as an alcoholic vagabond, Emily has found marriage an uneasy compromise. Sensing that she's suffered from cabin fever, Roy's end-of-vacation gift is an adventure: instead of flying home, they'll take a seven-day trip on the Transsiberian Express, Beijing to Moscow.
Of course the journey turns into an emotional and physical ordeal, somewhat on the order of famous train-set thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich and The Narrow Margin. Roy and Jessie meet Spaniard Carlos and fellow American Abby when they're assigned to the same tiny compartment. From the first, Carlos seems too interested in Jessie, and Abby is overly secretive. They're just nomads rambling through Russia, they say. Joining the train along the way is Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a friendly Russian who happens to be a narcotics cop. The officials are seeking drug traffickers; the handsome Carlos acts suspiciously. Church-guy Roy is too excited by the different kinds of antique trains on view to notice what's going on. Jessie's old way of life threatens to return, especially when the charming Carlos smilingly calls her "Chica Mala".
At a whistle stop, Roy is left behind under suspicious circumstances. Claiming ignorance of what happened to Roy, Carlos tries to attach himself more closely to Jessie. Jessie leaves the train for a night to let Roy catch up. Carlos and Abby insist on staying behind with her -- a bit too solicitously.
Transsiberian's characters engage us right away, with Roy and Jessie's relationship put in question. Roy's an unassuming American, but is he as big a fool as he seems? Is there really a smuggling going on? Does Carlos intend to recruit Jessie to carry drugs, or does he just want a quick conquest? Does Abby know more than she lets on?
On the thriller level, the movie does have weaknesses. (No spoilers here.) It gets off to a slow start, and when the genre elements begin to pile up, they're all far too familiar. The oldest drug-running movie gimmick in the world is exploited (think Don Siegel's The Lineup and Terence Young's Wait Until Dark) as if we'd never heard of it before; Jessie seems stupid not to catch on. Some of the biggest "surprises" in the story are given away by obvious hints. More than once, we know exactly what's going to happen before we're meant to. Roy and Jesse's infinitely trusting nature can be a bit much.
Transsiberian is still very engaging. It has a tense part-torture scene and a few good train-jeopardy moments that remind of us of Andre Konchalovsky's exciting Runaway Train. Anderson and Conroy make good use of a gimmick I've always liked. The hero's hobby is dismissed as useless and immature -- until the moment comes when his knowledge makes the difference between death and survival.
Woody Harrelson is both subdued and likeable as the sturdy square-peg nice guy, while Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega (The Devil's Backbone) handle their ambiguous roles with ease. Ben Kingsley is a solid adversary, backed by another drug cop played by Thomas Kretschmann. But the movie belongs to Emily Mortimer as the beleaguered Jessie. The tagline is "You Can't Escape Your Lies", yet Jessie is certainly lucky that she doesn't always tell the truth. Nagged because she refuses to quit smoking, Jessie quotes Tennessee Williams: "Kill off all my demons, Roy, and my angels might die, too." Although the script muffs a few thriller details, the characters are always spot-on.
First Look's Blu-ray and DVD of Transsiberian is a very attractive disc. The snowy wastes of Lithuania make a good stand-in for Russia, and excellent special effects erase all doubt that the characters are on a moving train. It looks genuinely cold out there, especially when Roy and Jessie are forced to run for their lives in subzero temperatures -- in their bare feet.
The Spanish, French, German and Lithuanian production comes with English and Spanish subtitles; the crew would seem to be divided between Spanish and Lithuanian personnel. Frankly, I'm finding that many of these classy European productions are much more interesting than new American product ... they bother to tell a story and don't depend on crass comedy to get by.
The single extra on the Blu-ray is a making-of docu, an EPK-style interview piece in which the cast members compliment director Brad Anderson. The featurette doesn't appear to be included on the standard DVD. After taking pains not to reveal any of Transsiberian's secrets, I have just read the text on the back of the box, which gives away one of the most important story surprises.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Transsiberian Blu-ray rates:
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