Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Transsiberian (Filmax International, Canal+ España, Filmax Group, First Look Pictures, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was a DVD Charles pulled from our ever-growing backlog: a 2008 movie called Transsiberian (notice the one-word spelling even though most references I’ve seen to the Trans-Siberian Railway, on which most of this film takes place, hyphenate it) from the usual modern-day mishmash of production companies — Filmax International, the Spanish branch of the French cable-TV operation Canal+, Filmax Group (how does that differ from Filmax International?) and First Look Pictures — whose producers appear to have been Spanish but they recruited an American director, Brad Anderson, and American leads, Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer. The film opens with a scene set, the subtitle tells us, in “Vladivostok, Russian Far East” (and Charles gave Anderson and his co-writer, Will Conroy, points for not making the common mistake of putting Vladivostok in Siberia!), a confused (and confusing) bit of action which establishes that a Russian gang is using the Trans-Siberian Railway to smuggle heroin. Then the film cuts to Beijing (introduced in the subtitle as “Beijing, China,” to which I joked, “As opposed to Beijing, Manitoba”), where married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are wrapping up an assignment to teach English to Chinese schoolchildren as part of a missionary organization. They’re ready to go home and Jessie would be just fine with flying, but Roy is a train buff and seizes on the opportunity to ride on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway to its western terminus in Moscow and then fly home from there. Big mistake: Roy and Jessie end up sharing a compartment with another couple, Spanish adventurer Carlos Ximénez (Eduardo Noriega, easily the sexiest male in this film by a very wide margin) and his Seattle-born 20-year-old girlfriend de jour, Abby (Kate Mara, who to my mind is not only much better looking than Emily Mortimer but a better actress as well). Transsiberian is one of those maddening movies that really seems like two separate films arbitrarily joined together at the midpoint, the first a romantic melodrama and the second an action-adventure thriller.

One thing Transsiberian does well is dramatize the continuing privations Russians endure and seem to have endured throughout their history, whether their overlords were named Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin or Putin — the toilets on the train are clogged, the “meals” are a joke, the trains themselves are overcrowded and the four principals’ fellow-travelers so ugly after a while we start to wonder if there are any nice-looking people in Russia. (Siberia was “played” by Lithuania in the film.) The big thing that happens in part one is that Roy gets left behind — he gets so wrapped up in exploring an old railroad yard and seeing the antique locomotives that he misses the train he’s supposed to be taking, and as best as she can understand them through the language barrier, Jessie is told that she’s just going to have to wait in a small town in the middle of Nowhere, Siberia for the next train to come in the next day, which Roy will no doubt be on. Carlos seizes this opportunity to seduce Jessie — he’s been eyeing her all movie with obviously disreputable intentions — and takes her out to some remote locations by bus, including a disintegrating old church he’s sure will appeal to Jessie, an amateur photographer (her Canon digital camera figures prominently in the film). While they’re out there alone in -23° weather (hardly, one would think, the best conceivable environment for outdoor sex!) he at first tries to get her to have sex with him willingly. When she refuses, he attempts to rape her, she runs away, and eventually she picks up a piece of wood and clubs him to death with it, then leaves his body out in the cold and returns on the Russian bus to the village, where she meets Roy as planned the next day. This scene also establishes that Jessie led a dissolute life with plenty of alcohol, drugs and men until she went into rehab, cleaned up, met Roy, married him and got involved with his church — which explains why, except on one occasion with Carlos, she regularly turned down the ubiquitous vodka shots she was offered on the Russian train.

While we’re clearly intended to regard Jessie’s killing of Carlos as justifiable homicide, we’re also aware that about the last thing she wants to do is hang around and face the decidedly un-tender and corrupt mercies of the Russian judicial system, such as it is. When Roy returns to the action, they’re on a different train and have a different roommate, Ivan Grinko (Ben Kingsley), who introduces himself as a Russian police officer and, since he speaks English, at least eases our couple’s language difficulties since he can interpret for them. Only Jessie begins to suspect that, rather than being a police officer, he’s really part of the drug gang she’s begun to hear bits about on the Russian media — and it turns out they’re both right: he’s a cop, but a corrupt one who’s part of the gang. They’re looking for the heroin Carlos was smuggling for them, which he was able to conceal by adding chemicals to solidify it and mold it into Russian toy dolls, and unbeknownst to Jessie Carlos concealed his dolls by putting them in her camera case — of course she freaks out when she discovers they’re there. The gangsters capture Carlos’s girlfriend Abby — ya remember Abby? (this film is full of Anna Russell moments) and torture her, thinking she knows where Carlos stashed the drugs, but eventually a train wreck ex machina derails, literally and figuratively, the characters and their clashing agendas, and the Russian authorities are able to capture Ivan and his fellow conspirators, Abby is freed and is in a Russian hospital recovering from her torture, and Roy and Jessie are allowed to go home — though there’s an odd tag scene at the end of a woman we haven’t seen before coming on Carlos’s body in the Siberian cold and presumably reporting it.

The short synopsis of Transsiberian on imdb.com — “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” — made it sound like a knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock in general and The Lady Vanishes in particular, but Brad Anderson and Wes Conroy make several basic mistakes Hitchcock wouldn’t have let himself or his writers get away with, including that jarring mid-movie break between romantic melodrama and thriller. Hitch would have insisted that the drug gangsters be on the train with the principals and would have periodically cut between them so we would know the threat the lead couple were under instead of us forgetting about the drugs until we were forcibly reminded of them in mid-movie (“Ya remember the drugs?”). Most significantly, St. Alfred would have ramped up the pace — as he in fact did in his films that took place wholly or largely on trains (not only The Lady Vanishes but The Secret Agent — from which Anderson and Conroy probably got the idea of a train crash that both literally and figuratively upends the agendas of the various characters, both good and evil — Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest) — and a Hitchcock-directed Transsiberian wouldn’t have the maddening longueurs between action scenes Anderson’s does. Transsiberian emerges as an O.K. movie but not a particularly distinguished one — and it doesn’t help that Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are perfectly credible but not especially charismatic actors (they’re not Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint by a long shot!) — an O.K. time-filler, a basically romantic thriller but one with some modishly dark elements (like Abby’s fate — she’s a more interesting character than our leads and one could imagine a remix of this story to put her fate front and center) and the sort of movie you want to like better than you do.