Six travelers go in search of a platform in “Last Passenger,” a sturdy runaway-train thriller that flaunts its influences but chugs up a decent amount of suspense before pulling into its final destination. Released in Blighty last fall and already out on DVD in certain territories, this low-profile release from Cohen Media Group won’t approach even the middling domestic cume of “Unstoppable,” but word of mouth could make it a popular cable outing — the coach equivalent of the Tony Scott picture.
An alternate title might have been “The Driver Vanishes.” The film begins with an ordinary nighttime commuter rail trip from London: Doctor Lewis Shaler (Dougray Scott, showing a rugged leading-man quality that isn’t often exploited), a single father, is taking home child Max (newcomer Joshua Kaynama) before heading to the hospital. In a bit of on-the-nose irony, a traffic accident requires his urgent attention.
Lewis strikes up an apologetic conversation with the lovely (and newly unattached) events planner Sarah Barwell (an appealing, banter-ready Kara Tointon) after Max spills her beverage on her coat, and the pair’s fast-progressing flirtation provides an emotional grounding for the adventure that follows. Other passengers include a dyspeptic businessman (David Schofield), a grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) and a Polish man (Iddo Goldberg) in a construction worker’s jacket, who raises suspicions early on after making a scene when the guard (Samuel Geker-Kawle) asks him to put out his cigarette.
Conveniently timed naps provide the film’s rather paltry explanation of how the half-dozen principals manage to be the only ones left on the train when things go awry. Subsequent developments adhere to a familiar genre template: odd sightings outside the window, the discovery of non-working brakes, the revelation that the locomotive runs on diesel fuel and thus can’t be halted by cutting power to the tracks.
As the requisite finger-pointing and paranoia subside, the characters go to work at various stopgaps, attempting to operate a hand brake and rushing a jammed driver’s door. There’s also a tangential emergency when a passenger goes into cardiac arrest, saddling the harried physician protag with yet another crisis.
Viewers might be forgiven for minding certain gaps in plausibility. While the movie doesn’t pretend that cell phones don’t exist, the only intermittent communication with the outside world is puzzling. The details of why the train has gone rogue are slowly and vaguely parceled out; the filmmakers would no doubt argue that they’re beside the point, but when questions are raised, the likelihood is that the plot device has exceeded the boundaries of a simple MacGuffin.
First-time feature director Omid Nooshin makes handsome use of the gently bobbing widescreen frame, evocatively using doors and compartments to divide the space. The train set, with two carriages housed at Shepperton Studios, develops as critical a personality as any of the characters. The more elaborate visual effects — involving a street crossing that won’t close, a single-track tunnel, the decoupling of two cars and the debatable wisdom of setting an explosion on a train — appear to be CG, often combined with too-rapid cutting, distracting from the pleasingly retro, handmade qualities of the rest of the package. Liam Bates’ Spielbergian score cribs rather too heavily from John Williams.
Beyond the production design, tech credits are solid, particularly Glenn Freemantle’s industrious sound work. The film showed its budget in the version projected, looking considerably sleeker on a smaller screen in an online link provided.