What is it with movies and trains? Two of the most anticipated franchise films of the summer, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1, feature massive railroad-centered action sequences. IJATDOD’s comes in its opening, and features a convincingly de-aged Harrison Ford going up against O.G. Nazis on an army train in the waning days of World War II. MIDRP1’s comes as its grand finale, and is an instantly iconic masterpiece of destruction and derring-do that one-ups itself every thirty seconds in a series of kinetic crescendos.
Why are these types of sequences, in which characters race through, fistfight atop, and dangle perilously from a series of discrete but varied compartments as they hurtle along a preordained pathway at excessive speeds, still so much a part of the action director’s playbook? After all, most Americans (unfortunately) don’t have much experience in or around trains these days. Our most common interaction with them is when they are stationary, blocking other traffic in a way that is the opposite of pulse-pounding.
In some sense, it’s as if trains are part of cinema’s DNA. The first widely screened film was the Lumière Brothers’ 1896 The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which (perhaps apocryphally) caused spectators to leap from the seats in fear of the “approaching” locomotive. The first heart-pounding cinematic spectacle, you might say. That was followed up by the iron horse’s incorporation into narrative films, from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to Buster Keaton’s The General.
Dramatic stories set on traveling trains combine circumscribed, even claustrophobic environments with a diversity of individual settings as varied as the number of cars in tow. They can bring together characters from diverse backgrounds, and are synonymous with intrigue in movies such as Night Train to Munich, Lars von Trier’s Zentropa, and, of course, the multiple versions of Murder on the Orient Express. These confluences can also lead to more positive relationships: Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Deply) meet on Eurail in Before Sunset, and an unlikely pair of travelers make a surprising connection in the 2021 Finnish film Compartment No. 6.
The qualities that give rise to films such as the foregoing can also be found in stories set in ocean liners, or spaceships, or stagecoaches. But there’s something about rail travel that makes it especially amenable to elaborate stunt work. There’s an analog solidity to trains, behemoths of iron and steam and sheer momentum. No other mode of transport involves (a) high-speed movement (b) close to the ground that (c) must stay on its designated course or disaster will ensue.
That combination of rattling velocity and stolid implacability gives an action filmmaker a lot to work with, from Keaton contending with the cowcatcher of The General to Spidey and Doc-Ock going mano a mano a mano a mano (you get the idea) atop an elevated New York subway train in Spider-Man 2. Heck, Ethan Hunt himself already has a high-speed train battle to his credit, in the very first Mission: Impossible movie, with bonus points for helicopter involvement.
Until this year, however, the best rail-based action scene in film history was, of course, the one in which Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh jumps a motorcycle onto a moving train to help Jackie Chan in 1996’s Supercop. And when I say Michelle Yeoh jumped a motorcycle onto a train, I mean Michelle Yeoh, who had never before the day of shooting driven a motorcycle, not some stunt driver, jumped that motorcycle onto that train. Eleven times, by most counts. (Plus there’s a helicopter involved, so take that, Brian De Palma.)
And now comes director Christopher McQuarrie to the stage, in Dead Reckoning, the new all-time champ for crosstie chaos. It’s an appropriate honor, since the film in its entirety is the most sheerly entertaining, adrenalizing spectacle in years. The plot is moronic when it’s not dispensed with entirely, and the dialogue is entirely dedicated to declaring the goals and methods the characters have in each discreet geographical sequence. (“Remember, Ethan: you need both halves of the key, Ethan! BOTH HALVES!” [paraphrased].) But, as they never tire of reminding us, Cruise and McQuarrie’s crusade is to get butts in seats, and there’s never been a better way to do that than by showing folks stuff they haven’t seen before, and showing it to them bigger and louder than they could experience anywhere else. Seriously, even if you think you have a banger home theater, see this in IMAX. (If I ever notice someone watching this film on a phone, I may need to be restrained.)
And in Cruise, the movies have their heir to Keaton and Chan, performers who knew that audiences can always tell when the performer is truly putting their safety at risk when executing stunts. There is something ineffable about knowing that it was the world’s biggest movie star his own self who drove a motorcycle of a precipice and then parachuted to earth (take that, Yeoh!). You can tell the difference between Cruise’s windblown face as he clings to the top of a Casey Jones special and the CGI version of similar antics in lesser films (including Dial of Destiny). And it seems impossible for any stuntman to mimic his running style—he looks like he was made by Boston Dynamics.
The climax involves a cascading series of catastrophes that lasts exactly as long as it should. (If this is all starting to feel a bit PG-13, so be it.) It’s top-notch audience manipulation, right down to the “Oh, right, this is just the first ****ing half!” realization. Tom Cruise is a perplexing guy, and he really should be questioned under oath about the whereabouts of Shelly Miscavige, but he’s certainly not the only movie star with a twisted past—he’s just the best one we have right now.
ALSO THIS WEEK:
Chile ’76: In this subtle drama, a wealthy retiree and grandmother is asked by her local priest to help a wounded criminal in his care. The victim turns out to be a member of the resistance against the dictatorial rule of Auguste Pinochet, and our reluctant fellow traveler finds herself drawn into the subterfuge and paranoia of the anti-fascist movement. Chilean actress Manuela Martelli makes her feature directing debut. (Available on DVD and streaming.)
The Night of the 12th: Veteran French filmmaker Dominik Moll’s new film gives off True Detective and Zodiac vibes, as a police detective becomes haunted by the unsolved murder of a young woman who was burned to death on her way home from work. The film won seven César Awards (French Oscars), including Best Film. (Opens Friday, July 14, at Living Room Theaters.)
The Miracle Club: Laura Linney, Maggie Smith, and Kathy Bates star in this melodrama about three Irish women who win a trip to the purportedly miracle-granting French town of Lourdes. They may not find evidence of supernatural favors, but you just know their lives will never be the same. (Area theaters.)
The Wicker Man: Edward Woodward’s immolation celebrates its 50th anniversary with a weekend of screenings featuring a newly restored digital edition. (Hollywood Theatre)