Call it Strangeness On A Train. On a late-night commuter rail from London, tired fortysomething single father Lewis (Dougray Scott) is escorting his 7-year-old moppet, who might fairly be described as adorable if his resemblance to poor, haunted Redrum Danny from The Shining wasn’t so uncanny. A suspiciously attractive, solicitous blonde hits on Lewis by charming his boy. This is Sarah, played by Eastenders graduate Kara Tointon, 18 years Scott’s junior—age-appropriate by Hollywood standards.
But Last Passenger is a British production. Its faint, pleasant whiff of early-Hitchcock Britishness, reinforced by the setting of a train populated by polite, well-dressed people and the fact that nothing very exotic happens for the film’s patient, closely observed first third, may charm CGI-fatigued viewers into crediting this thing with more intelligence and style than it ultimately has.
At least it’s smart enough to withhold the part where the passengers open up to each other for no reason about where they’re coming from, who’s waiting for them, the existential regret that haunts their fitful dreams, blah blah blah. People love the opportunities for self-reinvention and role-playing that travel affords, and this movie seems to get that on some level. But once the train starts blowing through scheduled stops, and no one can get in touch with the conductor, it becomes clear that co-writer/director Omid Nooshin isn’t crafting an iTunes-era The Lady Vanishes, so much as a sweater-weather remake of Speed.
Or maybe more a grounded, literally and figuratively, version of Non-Stop, the recent hit that starred Liam Neeson in his late-period, Grief-Stricken Badass mode as an air marshal being blackmailed via text message during a trans-Atlantic flight. Neeson’s gruff, authoritative presence (and the savvy casting of the secondary roles) carried that movie through its dodgier plot contrivances. Last Passenger almost pulls off a similar trick.
The likable father figure in charge this time is Scott, the guy who woulda been Wolverine if shooting delays on Mission: Impossible II a decade and a half ago hadn’t forced him to drop out of Bryan Singer’s X-Men. (Whatever happened to that second-stringer they got to fill Logan’s extra-furry muttonchops, anyway? He probably has a podcast or something now.) Scott’s character is both a widower and an emergency-room physician, and has the saintly bearing expected from the middle-aged lead of a much pricier thriller than this one. (Nooshin wooed backers for this micro-budget thriller via a trailer he shot and posted online himself, reportedly for less than $1,000.) Both the physical derring-do and the scowling skepticism are for the most part outsourced to others; respectively, Iddo Goldberg as a hotheaded Russian engineering student, and David Schofield as an irritable older passenger who urges everyone to just Sit Down And Let The Authorities Handle It. (The gradual thawing in relations between these two is one of the film’s minor-key pleasures.) This leaves Lewis to brood over how honest to be with his little boy about the potential for their impending death.
Like last year’s Gravity—which cost 40 times as much as this, but with similarly intimate stakes—Last Passenger benefits from creating tension by never cutting away to show what sort of rescue efforts might be ramping up in other locations. (It never comes up with a logical reason for not putting the half-dozen trapped passengers on the phone with the cops, though, a problem that seems like it could’ve been fixed with a line or two.) Unfortunately, Last Passenger falls victim to the last-act overfamiliarity that’s derailed so many other suspense films. There’s an attempt at conscious uncoupling of train cars. Somebody’s ticket gets punched. Like so many late-night journeys, Last Passenger starts out full of promise, but only stops at places we’ve already been.