April 04, 2011

MOVIES: Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)

After the success of Moon, Jones gets the chance to work with a bigger budget and bigger stars, and turns out a smart popcorn thriller.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Coulter Stevens, who is fresh from the field in Afghanistan when he wakes on a Chicago commuter train. He's not sure how he got there, and he can't understand why Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the woman seated opposite him, keeps calling him "Sean." He's even more confused when he looks in the mirror and sees someone else's face. There's a sudden explosion and Coulter finds himself back in uniform, in a tiny bunker where an officer on a monitor (Vera Farmiga) is giving him orders.

Jones smartly lets the audience share in Coulter's disorientation at the beginning of the movie, but we -- and he -- gradually piece together that his mind is being sent back into the body of Sean Fentriss, a commuter who happened to be on a train that was blown up by a terrorist. There's nothing that can be done about that crime now, but the military has learned that the bomber has plans for a bigger explosion, and Coulter's mission is to find the bomber on the train so that the second bomb can be stopped. But since Coulter can only occupy Sean's mind for the last eight minutes of his life, it's going to take several trips back to that train to complete the mission.

It's Groundhog Day meets Quantum Leap (and the latter debt is nicely acknowledged with a small bit of casting), and Jones does a nice job of working within the limitations of his story. We make at least eight or nine trips back to that commuter train, and it's entertaining to see how each one plays out differently as Coulter carries the knowledge gained on each trip into successive ones.

As he did in Moon, Jones makes the most of a limited number of claustrophobic sets, and it's interesting that both movies raise questions of identity, and focus on men who've been assigned jobs under circumstances they don't entirely understand. Gyllenhaal is very good here, playing his train variations with charm and wit, and his bunker scenes with finely calibrated frustration and anger. The rest of the cast isn't asked to do much heavy lifting, though Jeffrey Wright has some nice moments as Farmiga's commanding officer, a sort of comic-military turn on the standard Mad Scientist.

This works very well as a simple action flick, but it's also a very intelligent movie, and more thoughtful than the advertising might suggest.

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