Some people get ridiculously bent out of shapes when American versions of foreign films get made. Sure, it seems silly that some people won’t watch a movie because it has subtitles. I’ve always laughed at anyone who says, “I watch movies to watch movies, not read ‘em.” At the same time, I’m amused by those who exist on the opposite end of the spectrum, screaming of the purity of foreign films, and the blasphemous nature of Americanized remakes, produced solely—or at least seemingly solely—for the troglodyte audiences that hate to read subtitles. I play the neutral stance of Switzerland in this matter. I love Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and I also love John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. I thought Fabian Bielinsky’s Nine Queens was a great movie, while Gregory Jacobs’s American remake Criminal was not nearly as good, but was still entertaining. Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita was very entertaining, and John Badham’s Point of No Return made me want to rip my eyes out of my head. The point I’m trying to get at is that there is no point in taking a hardline stance when it comes to Americanized remakes of foreign films. Some are classics in their own right. Some are crap. And some, like The Man on the Train, director Mary McGuckian’s remake of Patrice Leconte’s French film L’homme du train (a.k.a. Man on the Train), are entertaining enough in their own right that they succeed, even when over-shadowed by the original.
Although it’s been many several years since I’ve seen Leconte’s L’homme du train, it was one of the better films of 2002, and from what I recall of that film, The Man on the Trainis a straight-forward remake that seldom deviates from the original. Donald Sutherland and Larry Mullen, Jr. replace Jean Rochefort and Johnny Halladay as unlikely friends who meet at a pivotal moment in both their lives. Sutherland stars as The Professor, a retired English teacher whose health is ailing, and who has lived a safe, predictable life that has left him filled with regrets of the whimsical life he could have lived. The Professor thinks of the banks he’s never robbed, the women he’s never slept with, and the daring chances he never took. By random chance he one night meets a stranger (Mullen) who has arrived in town by train. With the small town hotel closed for the season, Sutherland invites Mullen to stay in his large, decaying mansion, filled with the trappings of academia and intelligentsia, but devoid of the adventure that Sutherland has longed for all his life. And odd bond develops between the two men, formed by the romanticized desires of the life each wishes they’d lived. The two men come alive with each other, but this revitalization seems doomed. Sutherland is gravely ill, and must undergo dangerous surgery. Mullen is in town to rob the bank with a crew of criminals he knows from time in prison.
Jean Rochefort and Johnny Halladay in L’homme du train
L’homme du train enjoyed a successful limited theatrical release in America, made a respectable amount of money, and was hailed by critics. It earned enough of a following by both Francophiles and cinephiles that it seemed inevitable that there would be remake. But the fact that it took eight years for the remake to make it to the theaters—which it barely did—left The Man on the Train cinematically adrift. It was coming too far after the original to ride any sort of critical buzz or name familiarity like Let Me In did with Let the Right One In, and all it seemed to do was raise the ire of fans of Leconte’s film. And in all fairness to Leconte’s film, it is a superior movie. But when it comes to originality, The Man on the Train is no guiltier of being a rehash/recycle of another film than L’homme du train, which is itself essentially a remake of another movie.
When L’homme du train was released in the United States it was met with positive reviews by critics, many of whom mentioned the influence of spaghetti westerns on Leconte’s film—a bit of information graciously provided by the presskits sent out by the film’s distributor. But what the presskit failed to mention and most critics failed to recognize was the L’homme du train was essentially a remake of Sergio Sollima’s classic spaghetti western Face to Face (a.k.a. Faccia a faccia), starring Gian Maria Volonte as an ailing teacher who crosses paths with an outlaw (Tomas Milian), and the unlikely relationship that ensues. Leconte goes so far as to name L’homme du train’s outlaw character Milan, after actor Tomas Milian, who played essentially the same character thirty-five years earlier.
All of this is to say that while L’homme du train is a great film, it is still a reworking of a superior movie that it never properly acknowledged. This is something the detractors of The Man on the Train should think about while blasting a movie that is entertaining in its own right. Yes, The Man on the Train is not as good as L’homme du train, but that film is not as good as Face to Face. In terms of The Man on the Train, perhaps its biggest weakness is that it suffers from too much familiarity—at least that’s the problem I had with it. I’ve now seen two superior versions of this same story.
Like Leconte’s version, director Mary McGuckian’s take on the story moves at a deliberate and casual pace. Her direction is dependable and solid, but it pretty much feels like Indie Filmmaking 101—essentially there is nothing to set it apart from other indie films of comparable caliber. The film also suffers from a lack of chemistry between Sutherland and Mullen. This is not to say that there is no chemistry at all, but compared to Rochefort and Halladay—and even Volonte and Milian—Sutherland and Mullen aren’t quite delivering the sort of character-driven magic this story is capable of generating. Sutherland’s performance is solid—though his best scene is the deleted one that appears as a bonus feature—while musician-turned-actor Mullen competently broods. But the Irish-born Mullen has trouble masking his accent (as do some other actors), which compounds a persistent problem of the film. Shot in Ireland and Canada, but set presumably in the United States, the film has no real sense of place, and instead drifts aimlessly in a world of make-believe small towns that populate many movies. For a variety or reasons the town in The Man on the Trainnever feels like a real town, and as a result it casts a shadow of non-reality over everything that takes place in the town, including the relationship between Sutherland and Mullen.
At the end of the day, The Man on the Train is a decent and entertaining film, with a few moments that truly shine—most courtesy of Sutherland, some courtesy of Mullen. For those that enjoy casually-paced character studies that rely on subtlety as a means of conveying both story and character development, it is compelling enough to be engaging. No, it is not as good as L’homme du train, but that film is not as good as Face to Face. But at the same time, all three films—variations of the same story and thematic explorations—are far more compelling than much of what is out there. And while I have my preferred film of these three, all three work in their own ways, and any one, including The Man on the Train, is worth watching.