The essence of the trapped-on-a-train thriller—a legacy that Transsiberian has the chutzpah to revive—is the lack of choice. You don’t get a lot of steering options when it comes to rail. As a result, it’s a writer’s genre: The train transports us inexorably to its destination, yet the plot and characterizations hopefully take us somewhere else.
Except when they don’t. Brad Anderson (Session 9) has always been strong with chilly atmospherics—especially this time, employing the eerie vistas along the legendary line that stretches from Beijing to Moscow through thousands of miles of wilderness to great, exotic effect. Inside those cars, though, it’s another matter entirely. Woody Harrelson is capable of extending beyond his usual goofball (see Paul Schrader’s The Walker), but he isn’t doing that here, and you don’t believe his cheery church-sponsored Samaritan could ever be married to the moody ex-addict played by Emily Mortimer.
As Americans abroad, they’re targeted by a pair of sexy drug runners, then a scary, Soviet-era narcotics detective (Kingsley, chomping the floorboards). Here’s where Transsiberian is supposed to surprise us with a massive switcheroo, not merely the revenge of some wrongly accused tourists. The action heroics aren’t terrible, only disappointing given the ticket we’ve bought.