My sole reason for watching Man On The Train was that it starred the drummer of my favourite band, U2's Larry Mullen Jr., in his film acting debut. Acting seems like an odd fit for Mullen - he may be the percussive anchor for the biggest band on the planet, but he's always seemed content to just blend into the background and keep a low profile (U2 fans were amazed when he took a starring role in the band's "Electrical Storm" video). Clearly, he had a creative scratch that he had to itch, which brings us to this remake of a 2002 French film, directed this time around by Ireland's Mary McGuckian. The verdict? Well, I won't be completely dismissive and say that Mullen shouldn't quit his day job...let's just say that things can only get better in his fledgling second career.
The plot: a mysterious man-with-no-name (literally...Mullen's character is credited as "The Thief" in the credits) arrives in a small town to rob the local bank and meets a stranger, a retired literary professor (played by Donald Sutherland, known only as "The Professor") whose house he ends up staying at through some very far-fetched circumstances. The loners strike up an unlikely friendship and spend most of the next 75 minutes of the film on a lot of overly ponderous conversation peppered with high-minded literary references, examining the paths their unfulfilled lives have taken and contemplating their own mortalities. Getting back to those "far-fetched circumstances"...they include The Thief ludicrously not bothering to check that there would be an open motel or hotel in the town where the bank he planned to rob was located (it's the tourist town's off-season and everything is conveniently closed), as well as the clunky manner in which the pair first meet. That happens in the local pharmacy as The Thief tries to buy some migraine pills, which he's told he needs a prescription for. The Professor, who just happens to be picking up his own prescription of migraine medication, offers the stranger six of his pills. The Thief, with a scowl on his face the entire time, takes them and exits the store without even a thanks. Apparently not put off by the rudeness, The Professor chases after The Thief and invites him to his house so he can take the medication with a glass of water. I include these specific details to illustrate how the film gets off on such flimsy footing in terms of the story's plausibility; it's downright jarring and the movie never recovers.
It's hard to wonder how much to knock Mullen for his one-note performance that doesn't demonstrate much range. The Thief requires little more than for the character to act stoic and like he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders. The problem is, it doesn't make for a very interesting or dynamic character and feels a little too close to the low-key persona that Mullen has projected to the public for over 30 years. Hopefully, his next acting gig will afford him the opportunity to take on something that allows him to register a presence on screen, which this role does not. I also felt too consciously aware that I was seeing Mullen's acting machinations whirring away, not unlike the way I feel after seeing Keanu Reeves act. I will give him credit for having the balls to act opposite a veteran like Sutherland, although the pair don't have much chemistry. Unfortunately, The Professor quickly wears out his welcome with his incessant chatter and insufferable personality.
Man On The Train is very much a two character piece and the fact that neither of them are remotely engaging is just one of its many problems. The film, which was shot in Orangeville, Ontario, is molasses-in-January slow and consistently just keeps the viewer at arm's length with its offbeat flow. Numerous scenes go nowhere (such as the diner scene), the ending is silly and confusing, there's an only-in-the-movies character who speaks once a day at 10:30 in the morning, and the film, admittedly low budget, looks and sounds fairly cheap. Mullen, along with musician Simon Climie, can also take the blame for the terrible soundtrack, which regularly recycles the grating, main pulsing theme of the film. Mullen may be "only the drummer" in U2, but he actually takes a bigger role than you'd expect when it comes to contributing to the band's songwriting process, which makes the amateurish work on the soundtrack here so surprising.