Sok-woo and his daughter Soo-ahn are boarding the KTX, a fast train that shall bring them from Seoul to Busan. But during their journey, the train is overrun by zombies which kill several of the train staff and other passengers.While the KTX is shooting towards Busan, the passengers have to fight for their lives against the zombies.
In the 70’s, there were a spate of big budgeted, all star disaster epics that played to packed houses all over the world. Airport (1970) is considered to be the first of these films, and its success not only guaranteed more than a few sequels, but other similarly themed films. All of them had a cast of A and B list actors whose faces were familiar to millions of moviegoers, and as their popularity grew, their casts became bigger, and the threats they portrayed became more grandiose. Producer Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, When Time Ran Out) was perhaps the most popular creator of these films. But as the decade came to an end, so did the popular run of these so called “Disaster Films“. There has been the occasional attempt to remake them (2006’s “Poseidon” comes to mind), but it’s been awhile since we’ve seen a film in this venerated genre get made, let alone released. But writer/director Sang Ho Yeon obviously has a love for the genre, and from that love comes his latest film, Train To Busan.
The plot is immediately familiar if you have any experience with these films at all. Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager who has temporary custody of his daughter Soo An (Kim Soo Ahn). He’s very focused on his business, and doesn’t pay much attention to his little girl. Her birthday is a day away, and he asks her what does she really want for the special day, and it turns out all she wants is to go visit her mother. But her mother lives a long train ride away, and despite Soo’s insistence that she can take the ride by herself, her father forbids it. But he soon relents and soon the both of them are boarding a train. As the film progresses, we’re introduced to the main players of the film as they board the train. Sang Ha (Ma Dong-Seok) is a burly, impudent guy who gets on board with his pregnant wife, Sung Gyeong (Jung Yu-Mi). Yung-Guk (Choi Woo-Sik) & Jin Hee (Ahn So-Hee) are the teenagers in love, and the rest of the (very capable) cast follow suit as they get on what will be the last train ride some of them will ever take.
The infection begins to spread thru the train thanks to one infected young girl that no one notices until it’s way too late. Once you’re infected (by getting bitten of course), the change occurs in a matter of minutes, and director Yeon does a really effective job of introducing characters in one section of the train, while other sections are being run over by the ever growing number of infected passengers. His action/horror setpieces are first rate, and really keep the film moving at a brisk pace. Every so often, Yeon widens the focus of the film, and shows us what’s going on in the rest of the country as the virus spreads. By doing so, he informs both the characters on the train, and the viewer of how big the threat has become – and how dire the circumstances are for everyone.
As the film continues, I couldn’t help but count off the cliches as they came at me nearly every 10 minutes or so. It’s obvious that director Yeon has a real love for the disaster films of the 70’s, and he populates his film with characters that are lifted straight out of films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Seok Woo is basically the reluctant hero that would’ve been played by either Gene Hackman or Jack Lemmon back in the 70’s. Sang Ha has Ernest Borgnine written all over his face, and his wife Sung would be a perfect fit for Stella Stevens. The two teens are roles that Pamela Sue Martin & Robby Benson would have had back in the day as well. There’s also an older woman that Shelley Winters would’ve played if this film was made back in ’73, and there are roles for Roddy McDowall and a few of the more familiar actors of the era as well. And Train To Busan doesn’t skimp on the tropes of the classic disaster film either, Yeon’s script hits on practically every single disaster movie trope that he could fit into it. So much so, that you’ll pretty much know the fate of all the main characters almost immediately after they’re introduced.
While that might sound like a bad thing, it really isn’t, because the script never allows the audience to catch its collective breath. It just keeps on moving forward, with thrilling action scenes that are so fast and robust, you’ll feel like you’re on the train along with the actors. Additionally, no one does anything overtly dumb here either, and by that I mean that no one does anything that you or I wouldn’t do if faced with the same situation. I’m not gonna go as far to say that everyone makes smart decisions (the movie would only be 30 minutes long had that been the case), but no one does anything that screams of stupidity either, and that’s a refreshing change.
Train To Busan looks great as well, with crisp cinematography and some first rate editing by Yang Jin-Mo. The makeup effects are well crafted also, with some of the infected looking mildly upset, and some of them raging as the blood of their victims continually stain their clothing. The one constant of the makeup is a set of clouded, milky white eyes that are truly unnerving, and reminded me of the victims in another “Train In Peril” film called Horror Express (1972). As a matter of fact, there are scenes here that are very reminiscent of 2013’s World War Z, especially scenes of the infected climbing over each other to get to others. In hindsight, Train To Busan plays a lot like WWZ crossed with The Poseidon Adventure, with the difference being that it’s a much better film that Brad Pitt’s zombie epic. It even manages to slip in some commentary on class conflict as it careens to its thrilling finale.
Train To Busan is one of the best action horror films I’ve ever seen, and it’s definitely one of the best films of the year in my opinion. It takes a bunch of tropes/cliches that we’re all familiar with, and makes them feel fresh and brand spanking new. The performances are top notch, the FX first rate, and the script never really gives the audience (or the characters in the film) much of a chance to catch their breath. It’s been released for short runs in theaters in LA and NYC, but I doubt that’s gonna last too long, so I’d be on the lookout for it to debut on VOD very soon. It’s well worth your time/effort to take a ride on this train!
Train To Busan – 4 out of 5 Shrouds.