You know what you're getting with Omid Nooshin's “Last Passenger” as soon as the brilliant opening credits roller-coaster their way on screen. Even the title, by making the first “a” from both words form one simple train track, foreshadows the idea of what this retro ride is all about: simple fun. And calling it “simple” is no slight. Cluttered movies are a dime a dozen these days; the overabundance of characters like in “Grand Budapest Hotel,” convoluted plots like released version of “Snowpiercer” or an action scene every five minutes in just about every modern comic book film. So when you have a cut-and-dry premise like Nooshin's, the trap of boredom is much harder to avoid without the ability of throwing the whole kitchen sink at the audience. People who love digging for plot holes, even when there's enough going on to divert their attention, will find one or two. An actor will get derailed and hit the wrong note here or there along the way. But when all's said and done major kudos go to Nooshin, his co-writers, his editor, and his micro-cast for making a 90-minute train ride pack so much engaging romp in freight.
Dr. Lewis Shaler (Dougray Scott) is traveling from London with his young son Max, and trying to keep his bubbling energy down to a minimum so they could both get some sleep. While Max plays with his toy dinosaur Harry, Lewis gets a call from the hospital and is asked to come in as soon as possible. In walks young and beautiful Sarah (Kara Tointon) with her coffee, and Lewis watches from behind the door as his son inadvertently becomes his greatest wingman and spills Sarah's coffee all over her coat. After confirming that he's got 47 minutes until he reaches the hospital, he rushes over, and the pair hit it off instantly. Sarah, as it magically turns out, just dumped her boyfriend and is coming back from London after ditching her girlfriends because she wasn't in the mood to party all night. Leaving her fully focused on flattering a young boy and his oil pastel drawings, and flirting with his single-dad-doctor. Meanwhile, a shady looking character attracts the attention of the whole train by refusing to put out his cigarette, while taunting the guard and a curmudgeonly old man.
Throughout these establishing moments, the controlled pacing and brisk dialogue allow for the actors to inhale and exhale their lines with complete ease, making them all — right down to Joshua Kaynama's Max — likeable from the get-go. Who wouldn't chuckle along with Lewis when Sarah affectionately scolds him for not counting the seconds until his stop, after he was so precise with the minutes? Who wouldn't find Lewis caring when he uses a child's imagination to stop Max from getting close to the train door, or clever when he diagnoses an “airhead” in medical terms as an intellectual move to impress Sarah? Tension begins to rise ever so slowly, but it's not until we see the guard get 'taken' by the villain that we realize the characters we've just met aren't getting to their destinations any time soon. As promised, the train has been overtaken by a madman driver who disabled the emergency breaking system and locked himself in the front; leaving the six remaining passengers to find a way out of a speeding coffin, as it were.
That's how simple the plot is and as soon as Lewis' stop whizzes by them, panic officially sets in and Nooshin has our complete attention. The script is laced with conventionality and tropes but, thanks in large part to the actors, it doesn't drag the experience too far down. The charming chemistry between Scott and Tointon, Iddo Goldberg's wildness that hides a gentle soul in the character who turns out isn't shady at all, David Schofield's cranky old guy who's given just enough time to redeem himself for all of his apprehensiveness, and even a brief appearance by Lindsay Duncan (whom you should also be seeing in this year's wonderful “Le Weekend”) with her intriguing speech about “imperial purple” raise “Last Passenger” from direct-to-video dregs of indifference.
Helping right along is the fine shot composition and the editing, which is no doubt responsible for boosting the actors' performances and keeping the viewer on the edge of the seat with every twist and swirl of the train. It's not surprising to find out that the editor in charge here is Joe Walker, Steve McQueen's go-to-man for cutting and this year's (snubbed, in this reviewer's opinion) Oscar nominee for “12 Years A Slave.” The quieter moments, when given the chance to acquaint ourselves with the characters further, and the more “action” packed stuff, which includes a genuinely devastating moment involving an unassuming car, are nicely balanced all the way to the inevitable conclusion, which is admittedly predictable but still manages to be completely satisfying.
Coming back to the idea of simplifying matters and making it work, Nooshin's greatest accomplishment with “Last Passenger” is its minimalist approach. He utilizes a few cinematic components to their fullest potential, as opposed to half-assing his way with as many narrative threads or characters as possible in an effort to numb the audience into submission. The greatest example of this is the use of the villain, who is never seen and is heard through the intercom only once. Thanks to this trick, not only is he made more frightening, but the train itself becomes the passengers' greatest enemy, slithering on the tracks like an electric snake set loose. Meanwhile, there's a spider-man swinging in multiplexes with not one but three villains to worry about, and if you've read our review, you know how we feel about that one. “Last Passenger” is a good antithesis to the overloaded and cluttered action Hollywood seems to love nowadays. If you're not feeling especially picky on plot or character, you won't go wrong with this compelling and stylish train thriller. [B]