Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Jet travel being almost ubiquitous today, the thriller-mystery set aboard a train has almost disappeared from movie subgenres. Brad Anderson brings it back to robust life in "Transsiberian," a vigorous, fast-paced tale that entwines plot with character and psychology set against an incredibly exotic backdrop. No train ride in the world lasts longer than the Transsiberian, which takes seven days to run from China and Mongolia to Russia. Director Anderson, who co-wrote the script with Will Conroy, plunks down four westerners on this train whose reputation since the fall of the USSR has gone from glamorous to shady and dangerous.

"Transsiberian" may do little to promote tourism aboard the famous train -- then again, it may well inspire thrill-seekers and adventurers to book passage. But the well-made movie certainly has boxoffice potential as dynamic as its storytelling. Adding to the attractions, Anderson has cagily cast against type in several roles including Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer and Kate Mara, plus Ben Kingsley is on hand to demonstrate once again that he is among the cinema's very best character actors.

Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer), an American married couple on a church mission in Peking, decide to return home via Moscow on the Transsiberian in the dead of winter. Roy is a bit of an overgrown Boy Scout, but he does not lack for a sense of adventure and has long been obsessed by trains. Jessie figures she has little choice even though has tried to leave behind an overly adventurous past that includes drugs, booze and promiscuous sex. There are issues between them, but for now only adventure lies ahead.

They have no idea. At the top of the movie, a murder victim is discovered. Russian detective Grinko (Kingsley) immediately sees a link with the drug trade and that train. He then hurries off to Moscow. No doubt will show up on the Transsiberian.

The movie does give viewers a chance to settle into the sheer exoticism of the Transsiberian before the thriller kicks in. As the movie tells it, the train is now the travel choice of aging pensioners, drug traffickers, corrupt officials, mobsters and brutal cops. Passengers swap vodka and dark tales to pass the time and get over the bad food.

Roy and Jessie find themselves sharing extremely cramped quarters with a young American Abby (Mara), who just spend two years teaching English in Japan, and her older Spanish boyfriend, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega). Everyone becomes very friendly, even sharing a few secrets. Only Roy seems oblivious to how Carlos looks at Jessie.

At one stop, the four get off to look around. Roy becomes so enamored of the old trains idling nearby he misses the train. Jessie gets off at the next station. Abby and Carlos offer to wait with her. Abby seems intent on making a mysterious day trip by herself. When Carlos and Jessie go on their own country excursion to a ruined church, Carlos comes on to Jessie. In defending herself, she kills him.

When Roy rejoins her, Jessie says nothing. The two continue on, and Abby is left behind to search for her missing companion.

Roy is now in the company of none other than Grinko, who helped translate for him as Roy frantically tried to book another train to join his wife. Grinko is simply enjoying the young couple's company until the subject of Abby and Carlos is raised. Then his ears prick up.

Soon everyone is convinced Abby and Carlos fit the profile of drug smugglers on the Transsiberian. Then Jessie is horrified to discover that Carlos may have slipped his contraband into her luggage before his untimely demise. It's funny, but a train is hard place to hide that much drugs. Try as she might, she can't get rid of the drugs, her guilt over killing Carlos or Grinko's growing suspicions.

OK, it's all a bit far-fetched, and a few coincidences are needed to bring the parties fatally together. But the story under Anderson's astute direction unfolds in such a logical fashion amid the chaos and looseness of this oddball train that you go with the exciting flow. More to the point, Anderson makes increasing tension and danger grow from his characters' personalities and behavior -- the naivete of Roy, the overwhelming guilt of Jessie and the conflicts of interest welling inside Grinko, a man who has never recovered from the death of a son -- and one suspects the Soviet Union.

Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, shooting on locations in Lithuania, Spain and China, keeps things as dark as the frigid weather and always claustrophobic inside the train. As the train speeds westward through a frozen landscape, you get the impression civilization has been left further and further behind.

Filmax Group

Screenwriter-director: Brad Anderson
Co-screenwriter: Will Conroy
Producer: Julio Fernandez
Executive producer: Carlos Fernandez
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Alain Bainee
Music: Alfonso De
Costume designer: Thomas Olah
Editor: Jaume Marti

Cast: Roy: Woody Harrelson
Jessie: Emily Mortimer
Abby: Kate Mara
Carlos: Eduardo Noriega
Grinko: Ben Kingsley
Myassa: Thomas Kretschmann

Running time -- 111 minutes
No MPAA rating