Sunday, November 08, 2020

Transsiberian, Hitting Sundance Now

These days, traveling from China to Russia is like climbing out of the fire and into the frying pan. About ten years ago, it was considered the opposite. Regardless, most rational Americans would be leery of taking the Transsiberian from Beijing all the way across Siberia, but for some reason it sounds fun to a train nut like Roy Nusser and his wife Jessie is willing to humor him. Guess what? They encounter corruption and danger in Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, which starts streaming tomorrow on Sundance Now.

A French businessman warns the na├»ve Nussers how crooked Chinese and Russian cops are, but they really aren’t listening. Instead, he is totally fascinated by the train and she is perversely interested in their romantic but slightly sketchy traveling companions, Spanish Carlos Ximenez and American Abby. She is both jealous and somewhat disdainful of their free-spirited lifestyle. However, when klutzy Roy is left behind during a layover, she is initially grateful when the more experienced travelers accompany her as she waits for her wayward husband at the next stop.

Unfortunately, when Ximenez shows his true criminal colors, it leads to all kinds of complications. Nusser would prefer to forget the whole incident, but she is alarmed to discover the backpacker stashed a shipment of drugs in her camera bag—and their new cabin mate is Ilya Grinko, a senior officer with the Russian DEA.

Anderson’s genre films are often all over the place and
Transsiberian is no exception. Honestly, the first two acts are bizarrely slow and traveloguish. However, third act cat-and-mouse game, back aboard the train with Grinko is tense, nerve-jangling stuff. Not surprisingly, Sir Ben Kingsley is far and away the film’s MVP, portraying Grinko with chilling ruthlessness. (Arguably, it hardly matters whether he is crooked or not, since he is serving a rotten regime.) Thomas Kreschmann is almost unrecognizable, looking very Russian and very sinister as Grinko’s thuggish partner Kolzak.

On the other hand, Emily Mortimer, and to a lesser extent Woody Harrelson (reverting to his old Woody Boyd mode), inspire cringes, groans, and face-palms, as they unconvincingly lurch from one ill-advised decision to another. Panic can cause people to do stupid things, but the Nussers just act like idiots.

Repeat after me: China and Russia are dangerous places for law-abiding Americans to visit. (Remember, Siberia was the home of the Gulags.) If it takes
Transsiberian to drive the point home, then it has served a valuable purpose. As a thriller, it is okay, but it should have been leaner and tighter. Safer than a journey on the Chinese-Siberian rails, Transsiberian hits Sundance Now tomorrow (11/9)—and it already streams on Prime and the FilmRise app.