Source Code begins in full, racing Hitchcock mode: aerial shots of Chicago, including vertiginous views down onto passing skyscrapers, and every glance made ominous by shrieks from an alarmed string section.
Once inside a speeding train aimed at the city, we understand the distress. A passenger, Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) snaps awake as his flirty seatmate, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), calls him by another name. Stumbling into a rest room, the distraught traveller finds a stranger's face in the mirror.
Moments later, the train explodes and Stevens is pulled through fiery debris. Waking again in a drab capsule, our hero is informed that the preceding experience amounts to a briefing on his latest assignment:
Terrorists are attacking Chicago. Soon, Stevens will be returned to the death train, sent back in time to a moment eight minutes before the bomb goes off. The Special Forces operator has precisely 480 seconds to foil a brewing insurrection.
The latest from David Bowie's filmmaker son, Duncan Jones ( Moon), is a deceptively complex pleasure craft weighted down with so many plots it's a wonder the whole thing moves with such grace and efficiency. A techno thriller with all the trimmings, Source Code is loaded with ticking bombs and dastardly concealed villains.
And the Hitchcock stuff off the top isn't just for show: Stevens and Christina are a pre-arranged romance. His handlers insert him into the closest chromosome match on the train, Christina's shiny new, untried boyfriend. So the world thinks he's someone else. That's pretty well adman Cary Grant's dilemma when he bumps into Eva Marie Saint on a train to Chicago in North by Northwest.
Like Hitchcock's great 1959 film, Source Code is a romantic comedy disguised as a suspense thriller. It is also a thoughtful meditation on lunatic heroes. Way back in 1969, Bowie compared being a rock star with being a helpless astronaut (Major Tom) in Space Oddity ("Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.")
When we meet Stevens, he's a burnout case like Major Tom. He's just back from Afghanistan, ineffably sad, ready for retirement.
The plot, then, is twofold: Can Colter Stevens save the world? And can love save Colter Stevens?
The juxtaposition makes both storylines more intriguing. Michelle Monaghan's clowning response to her boyfriend's sudden histrionics lends the drama a giddy fizz. She also spares Gyllenhaal the dull task of charging about, eyes narrowed, like a proper hero for the entire film.
Having a skeptical partner also keeps Gyllenhaal honest, discouraging the actor's propensity for frantic overplaying. The two leads have a light, teasing rapport that nicely contrasts and sets up the film's desperate race-against-the-clock storyline.
Director Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley also deserve credit for expertly shuffling the plot. Stevens can't solve the bomber riddle in one try, so must return to the exploding train again and again. It's a set-up that permits him to engage suspects at different angles to gather evidence while allowing a series of dates - a full-blown romance - with Christina.
Source Code could use more compelling villains and secondary characters. But there is one stranger on the train who serves the film's varied purposes. Canadian funny man Russell Peters plays a sour comic who is continuously put off by Stevens's meddlesome investigation. He also figures prominently and well in the film's cleverly sprung ending.
- Directed by Duncan Jones
- Written by Ben Ripley
- Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright and Russell Peters
- Classification: PG
Special to The Globe and Mail