Intrigue and fear are onboard in 'Transsiberian'

Al Alexander

Call me old-fashioned, but I love trains. I think it’s the rhythmic sound of steel wheels striking steel rails that most steal my heart. But it’s also because they’re one of my favorite movie stars.

Has there been a more rampant scene-stealer? Just think of “Reds,” “Risky Business,” “The Lady Vanishes” or “Bound for Glory” without them. Heck, even Harry Potter would be in servitude sans that magical choo-choo to Hogwarts.

They’re fast, powerful, romantic and, when put in the hands of the right director, quite dangerous, – or at least they used to be.

Nowadays, you’re more likely to see Iron Man than an iron horse. So if ever a star needed a kick in the caboose, it’s this one. And Brad Anderson is all too happy to apply it with his nifty, well-acted transcontinental thriller “Transsiberian.”

Even when it derails in the final act, it remains a gripping excursion that thrusts Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer down a twisty track pocked with lies, deceit and murder.

It’s taut and suspenseful. But more than that, it’s smart, as Anderson pays homage to Hitchcock’s great “train” movies by borrowing liberally from the master’s bag of tricks, right down to placing an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances.

Or at least that’s what Mortimer’s Jessie Nester originally seems, as she and her overtly cheery husband, Roy (Harrelson), board the famed Trans-Siberian Express in Beijing for the first leg of their journey back to Iowa after completing a church mission.

The destination is Moscow, and other than a testy Russian steward, the trip begins smoothly with Jessie indulging her love of photography and her hubby basking in his love of train travel.

Enter Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega as Abby and Carlos, a pair of great-looking young vagabonds sharing a sleeping compartment with Roy and Jessie, the latter of whom is finding it more and more difficult to police herself amid Carlos’ repeated come-ons.

What’s fun is the clever, but deliberate manner in which Anderson and co-writer Will Conroy open each character up like a matryoshka to reveal souls that are nothing like first perceived.

Ditto for the movie, which takes many an unexpected turn, as people and a cache of drugs disappear and reappear at the most inopportune times.

To say more would spoil all the fun, but suffice it to say that it’s generally riveting and occasionally unsettling, especially after Ben Kingsley’s take-no-prisoners Russian narc, Grinko, comes aboard halfway through the journey.

He, like all of Anderson’s characters, is emotionally enigmatic, a trait that constantly keeps you guessing who can – and can’t – be trusted.

It’s all part of Anderson’s grand plan to inform as well as entertain in presenting a scenario in which Russia’s two biggest problems – drugs and Machiavellian officials – pose a threat to pampered, naïve Americans.

Anderson uses it to create a palpable sense of fear and dread, a mood sharply contrasted by the gorgeous scenery found in the lush, rolling hills of western China and snow-covered plains of Siberia (actually Lithuania); all tantalizingly captured by Spanish cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, who could well be an Oscar contender.

If it were up to me, Harrelson and Mortimer would be, too. Both are terrific, with Harrelson making Roy’s eternal optimism and blind trust something to admire, not scorn; and Mortimer, wrenchingly conveying Jessie’s internal struggle to suppress the dark, bad-girl tendencies that defined her before she literally crashed into an adorable rube like Roy.

Credit some of that to Anderson, who has a history of drawing superior performances from his actors, be it Hope Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Boston-set “Next Stop Wonderland,” David Caruso in the blood-curdling “Session 9” or a shockingly thin Christian Bale in “The Machinist.”

I swear the guy even makes the rail cars perform better, packing all the quaintness of an old steam locomotive into a movie that speeds along with sleekness of a bullet train. To say it gets you where you want to go is an understatement. Because “Transsiberian” also takes you to a place you never want to leave.

TRANSSIBERIAN -  (R for some violence, including torture and language.) Cast includes Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega.