First Look International
At the Michigan Theatre
3.5/5 stars

Courtesy of First Look International

Mothers always warn their children not to speak to strangers. But as those children grow older, they gain the awareness that they will be able to fend for themselves, and strangers become less worrisome. It’s at that point that a movie like “Transsiberian” comes along and smacks them in the face with the realization that perhaps they can’t trust just anyone.

“Transsiberian” tells the story of a married couple of Christian missionaries leaving China, who opt to take the Trans-Siberian Railway back to Moscow. Roy (Woody Harrelson, “No Country for Old Men”) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer, “Lars and the Real Girl”) seem like your average do-gooder pair. However, as the film reveals early on, there will be nothing ordinary about this train ride. The first signs of tension come during a lovers quarrel, and from there it’s a dead sprint to the action. Quick camera cuts and the ever present soundtrack of the train keep the plot moving, leaving the viewer with a sense of urgency and — the goal of all thrillers — a feeling of unease.

Roy and Jessie’s marital troubles may have been long brewing. But their misadventures on the train come as a result of a pair of fellow travelers with whom they share their sleeping compartment, Abby (Kate Mara, “We Are Marshall”) and Carlos (Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega, “The Devil’s Backbone”). The sexy and gregarious Carlos wastes no time forming a somewhat sinister bond with Jessie that drives the plot for the rest of the film.

“Transsiberian” may be a typical thriller in the respect that it sticks closely to the genre’s key devices — the pace is fast, the action is constant and our heroes are worth rooting for in the face of better informed and more menacing villains. However, where “Transsiberian” is at its best is not during the action scenes but in the moments in between. The director, Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”), does an excellent job of contrasting the calm moments with jarring displays of gunplay and violence. The scenery he has at his disposal — not only the Trans-Siberian train but also the stunning Lithuanian landscape (filling in for the Russian countryside) which Jessie and Roy find themselves traveling through — is beautifully shot and adds a certain mystique to the movie.

With a plot that revolves around drugs, money and unsavory foreigners, it’s easy for the mind to wander. Anderson, however, plays with the viewer’s misconceptions, or suspicions, of how legal systems work in countries other than the United States. It leads the viewer to question just how safe he or she is under a foreign government.

“Transsiberian” also has the added advantage of Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley (“The Wackness”), who almost always provides additional legitimacy to a film. Though he doesn’t have the biggest role, he’s clearly the true star of the film. With this film he proves that he is one of our generation’s greatest actors — all the while rocking a Russian accent and furry coat.

Plot wise, “Transsiberian” doesn’t have the most original plot. It’s entertaining, but leaves you once you walk out of the theater. Even so, with the strong cast and director, this is a film worth viewing at least once.

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