Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: Transsiberian (2008)

With the release last weekend of the latest Tony Scott/Denzel Washington runaway train flick, Unstoppable, I thought it was appropriate to look back at another (sometimes) runaway train film that did not receive the love, nor a proper theatrical release in North America: 2008's Transsiberian.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Zombieland), Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island), Eduardo Noriega (Open Your Eyes, the original version of Vanilla Sky), Kate Mara (127 Hours) and Ben Kingsley (also Shutter Island), Transsiberian looked to have the goods to at least get a proper release. However, at its widest, the film managed to make it into only 154 theatres in Canada and the US (not one in Toronto, though, as I have no memory of this picture ever opening here). It made all of $2.2 million at the North American box office before being consigned to DVD/Cable TV/airplane oblivion. Don't get me wrong, this is no masterpiece, nor even a lost treasure, but it is a credible, entertaining thriller that, after a logy start, picks up steam and rattles on very successfully to its conclusion. And it has some things that are missing from the vast majority of big-budget action pictures that do get a proper release: reasonably believable characters and mostly logical thrills.

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer
Harrelson and Mortimer play a couple of Christian missionaries who, after completing an assignment in Beijing, decide to take the legendary Trans-Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow. On the train, they meet up with an American woman, Abby (Mara), and Spanish man, Carlos (Noriega). Harrelson's Roy is a wide-eyed naif, while his wife, Jessie, is a reformed party girl who found salvation in the kind Roy (and Christ). Of course, as with most films like this, Abby and Carlos are not who they seem to be. Rather, they are mule drug smugglers who are transporting heroin for a group of nefarious villains. Carlos recognizes an ambivalence in Jessie, and during one stop tries to coax her away from the ever-smiling Roy. There is a suggestion at the stop that Carlos may have done something to Roy, because when the train starts up again, Roy is not on board. I don't want to get into spoiler land, so let's just leave the plot here, other than to say Kingsley is around playing a Russian detective seemingly trying to track down Carlos and Abby and their drugs.

Ben Kingsley
What makes this little thriller work is a good twist at the half-way mark – a twist I didn't see coming – and a credible performance from Harrelson (he taps into the memory of his big-hearted doofus “Woody” Boyd character in Cheers), a deliberately irritating one by Mortimer (a British actress believably playing an American) and an endlessly inscrutable Kingsley. The film, directed and co-written by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, and TV series such as Fringe, Rubicon and Boardwalk Empire) is well paced and looks quite good for what is obviously not a very high budget production. So, why did this fail to get released? There's no playbook that explains why a film gets dumped, but possible reasons abound. With a cast led by Harrelson (who in 2008 had not had his comeback in Zombieland yet) and a group of production companies attached suggest it was one of those multi-country co-productions - one that may have had trouble finding a major distributor to release it. Without that, getting into theatres in the endlessly crowded release calendar would be nearly impossible.

Then there's the notorious focus group screenings. Having been approached on the street years ago to attend one of these (for David Cronenberg's The Fly), I discovered that the people picked for these are so randomly selected (as I was) that most films don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting good “numbers” if the group dynamic doesn't actually like thrillers. Then there's the executive fights. Sometimes, the regime that 'green-lit' the picture is fired before the film is finished. The new team is certainly not going to let a picture be okayed by the old team and then watch it become a hit under their watch. So they'll do anything they can to kill it off. Any or all of these scenarios may have happened to this perfectly enjoyable film. But at least we live in an age where films can at least be allowed a second life. This is the type of picture that is a fine second choice when your first one is not available at your local DVD shop, or on demand. It's even worth a look as your first choice instead of that big-budget pic that will still be on the shelf, in multiple copies, next week. Tiny films that satisfy on many levels deserve your attention, and Transsiberian is a fine example of that kind of movie.

 David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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