Opens Fri., April 25 at Meridian. Rated R. 97 minutes.
The dramatic engine for this old-fashioned thriller dates back to the silent era: a runaway train without brakes. It’s a situation Buster Keaton treated for comedy, a device Hollywood dusts off every few years (Denzel Washington’s Unstoppable being the most recent example). This taut English variant, directed with minimal CGI by Omid Nooshin, mostly confines itself to a suburban commuter train departing London one ordinary evening. Its passengers gradually disembark until six are left; then something goes horribly—and for us, predictably—wrong: A madman has seized control and is hurtling the train back toward a fatal crash at line’s end.
Terrorism is never mentioned, though we think of 9/11. (The English reference point would be the July 2005 bombing of the London Underground.) The panicked passengers whip out their curiously dated cell phones, but the police can’t help. They’ll have to stop the train themselves—or die trying. Dr. Shaler (Dougray Scott) and his 7-year-old son are accompanied by familiar types: cranky old barrister, flirty blonde, mysterious foreigner, and nice little grandmother. (No Muslims means no terrorist suspicions.) So who will die first, and who will die last? It’s all very Agatha Christie—basically a generic drawing-room drama that happens to be moving at 100 miles per hour.
Scott, a virile Scotsman, tends to play the heavy in U.S. movies. As leading man, he’s got a calm, bland decency. His Dr. Shaler is a widower, but the guy doesn’t show much pain—only parental concern for his son. Shaler—and the whole movie—call out for a more damaged and interesting character, a Neesonian quality that’s lacking here. Instead, the passengers’ squabbles are easily resolved, and Shaler is simply the kind of upright man who can say “I’ve got an idea!” in the last 10 minutes because the script requires it. The suspense here is plausible enough, as a routine journey—think of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370—goes frighteningly off course. Still, so many of us are accustomed to bad commutes that Last Passenger doesn’t deviate far enough from its sturdy story rails.