As ‘Bullet Train’ arrives in theaters, check out these rail-centric action films


Brad Pitt and Bad Bunny face off in “Bullet Train,” and it’s just the latest such movie to put its action on rails.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Bullet Train,” the new, mano-a-mano action-thriller starring Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock and Bad Bunny opening in theaters Aug. 5, gets its kung-fu kicks aboard a high-speed, Japanese train, and it’s just the latest such movie to put its action on rails. After all, having lots of people trapped in a metal box flying down the track at full speed is a good setting for some cinematic chaos. With that in mind, here are 10 favorite train-centric action movies that you should catch if you want to get in the mood before boarding this “Bullet Train.”

you talkin’ to me? Gong Yoo gets ready to do battle in ‘Train to Busan.”

Photo: WellGo USA

1. ‘Train to Busan’ (2016)

South Korean director Yeon Song-ho proves that zombies on a train trump snakes on a plane every time. His suspenseful, heart-pounding and absolutely electric thriller, in which the undead turn a Seoul-to-Busan commuter railway into a first-class feeding frenzy, careens just like the train in the title but never derails. Just when everyone thought that nothing new or exciting could be done with the zombie genre, Song-ho shrugged and said, “Yeah, whatever.”

“Snowpiercer” is marked by bold visuals and a strong performance by Tilda Swinton.

Photo: Radius Films

2. ‘Snow Piercer’ (2013)

In Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” a locomotive ferrying what’s left of humanity after a climate disaster, becomes a rather obvious metaphor for late-stage capitalism with the wealthy residing in luxury up front while the laborers suffer in squalor in the back. But “Snowpiercer” is marked by impressive world-building, bold visuals and strong performances from Chris Evans as revolutionary Curtis and especially Tilda Swinton as the grimly authoritarian Mason. The film spawned a TV series of the same name and Joon-ho went on to make an even more celebrated film about class, the Oscar-winning “Parasite.”

It’s a really stressful day for Jake Gyllenhaal stars in “Source Code”

Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Summit Entertainment

3. ‘Source Code’ (2011)

Duncan Jones’ inventive twist on the “Groundhog Day” nightmare stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier who wakes up in another guy’s body, finds out he has eight minutes to uncover who planted a bomb on a morning commuter train and has to keep re-living this nightmare of a scenario. Thanks to a solid cast that also includes Jeffrey Wright, Vera Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan, and a sense of narrative propulsion that keeps viewers from sweating the details of the film’s mumbo-jumbo science too much, “Source Code” makes engrossing use of its Hitchcock -meets-“Twilight Zone” premise, and the result is a sleek and satisfying.

No windshield, no problem. Jon Voight in ‘Runaway Train’

Photo: The Cannon Group

4. ‘Runaway Train’ (1985)

Though parts of Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Runaway Train” seem dated now, this story of two escaped convicts and a railroad worker trapped on a conductor-less train hurtling through the frosty Alaskan wilderness is held together by a sense of suspense and strong performances, especially from Jon Voight as the bad tempered Manny. To the surprise of many at the time who considered “Runaway Train” just another throw-away genre film, Voight and co-star Eric Roberts received Oscar nominations, for best actor and supporting actor respectively.

Hector Elizondo takes over a subway train “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” from 1974.

Photo: Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/G/Getty Images

5. ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ (1974)

The New York City subway system in the ’70s didn’t have the best reputation and, no doubt, this adrenaline rush of a film from director Joseph Sargent didn’t help with the Big Apple’s public relations. When four hijackers commandeer a subway car and demand a ransom, it’s up to the police department’s Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) to bring them down. Matthau had a strong supporting cast including Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Robert Shaw and Jerry Stiller (Ben’s dad). The film has been remade a couple of times, as “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio in 1998 and “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” in 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. But the original still reigns.

Denzel Washington plays a railroad worker who deserves to be named Employee of the Month in “Unstoppable”

Photo: Robert Zuckerman/AP

6. ‘Unstoppable’ (2010)

In most of these films about trains of terror, there’s usually at least one bad guy (or zombie) on board. Not so with “Unstoppable” in which two nice-guy, low-level railroad employees (played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) with personal issues find themselves as the only ones who can stop an out-of-control, unmanned locomotive. Directed by Tony Scott (“True Romance,” “Crimson Tide”) with verve and tension, the crisply edited, high-octane “Unstoppable” lives up to its title.

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder make for an unlikely team in ‘Silver Streak.’

Photo: Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/Un/FilmPublicityArchive/United Arch

7. ‘Silver Streak’ (1976)

The only comedy on this list is not only propelled by the hilarious chemistry of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder (that still holds up, though the blackface scene lands differently in 2022 than it did 46 years ago). Still, a fair amount of railcar-hopping action, including a spectacular crash at the film’s climax based loosely on an actual 1953 incident, makes this Arthur Hiller film essential for those who like their cinematic train trips mixed with a few laughs and some credibility- stretching crime.

A stoic Vinnie Jones in ‘The Midnight Meat Train’

Photo: Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani

8. ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ (2008)

A very young, pre-“Limitless” Bradley Cooper is an ambitious photographer who, in his quest to capture the underbelly of New York City, stumbles into the path of a stone-silent serial killer (Vinnie Jones, “Snatch”) who turns late night subway riders into deli slices. Japanese director Ryûhei Kitamura, working from a script based on a Clive Barker short story, has a stylish sensibility that elevates the material beyond the usual slasher predictability. Many viewers missed this film when it came out because Lionsgate unceremoniously dumped it into only 100 theaters nationwide. But decent reviews (73 per-cent on Rotten Tomatoes), word-of-mouth among horror fans and the advent of streaming platforms have helped keep its bloody spirit alive.

A trip from China to Moscow across Siberia is turning into a nightmare for Emily Mortimer in “Transsiberian.”

Photo: Jose Haro/AP

9. Trans-Siberian (2008)

This tense little thriller is set on board the Trans-Siberian Railway, a journey that summons up images of intrigue and danger. That’s exactly what an American couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) finds after unwittingly getting involved with two drug smugglers posing as couchsurfing wanderers out to see the world. All are being pursued by a Russian cop (Ben Kingsley).

Frank Sinatra means business in ‘Von Ryan’s Express.”

Photo: Photo by Schweitzer-Hecht / ulls/ullstein bild via Getty Images

10. ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ (1965)

Frank Sinatra stepped away from the recording studio to star in this WWII action flick about a group of Allied POWs who make their escape from an Italian camp by commandeering a train. The film was notable at the time for shooting on location in Europe and using real trains and aircraft.

honorable mentions

Burt Lancaster in “The Train” in 1964

Photo: Photo by RDB/ullstein bild via G/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In John Frankenheimer’s suspenseful, surprisingly downcast and Oscar-nominated 1964 WWII drama “The Train,” Burt Lancaster has to figure out a way to stop a German train full of valuable French art from getting to Germany — without damaging the art.

Neither Gareth Evans’ “The Raid 2” from 2014 nor Stanley Tong’s “Super Cop” (starring Jackie Chan) from 1992 are train films per se but each includes an eye-popping action scene set on a train. In “The Raid 2,” the Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) uses two hammers to take down her knife-wielding opponents in a subway car in a violent confrontation while in “Supercop,” Michelle Yeoh and Jackie Chan pull off an amazing series of stunts on top of a moving locomotive, including Yeoh’s motorcycle leap onto the top of the train. Similarly, while everyone associates the “Mad Max” franchise with cars, a train had a starring role in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. And, of course, Tom Cruise clung to the top of a speeding bullet train in “Mission: Impossible” in 1996.

Other trains, different tracks

Lars von Trier’s “Europe”

Photo: Criterion Collection

Danish indie director Lars von Trier is not known for making action films but in 1991 he released one of the more tensely hypnotic and unsettling train films, “Europe.” Shot in a luxuriant black and white (with splashes of color) as a nod to the classic film noir movies it resembles, it tells the story of a young American in 1945 Germany who decides to blow up the train on which he works.

Similarly, there have been so many mysteries and thrillers set on trains over the years: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 hit “Strangers on a Train” (which inspired Danny Devito’s “Throw Momma from the Train” in 1987) as well as his “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) and “North by Northwest” (1959); “The Great Train Robbery” (with its notable performances from Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland) in 1978; “Emperor of the North” starring Lee Marvin (1973) with its conductor-vs.-hobo conflict and the many versions of Murder on the Orient Express.

Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman in ‘The Darjeeling Limited.’

Photo: James Hamilton/Twentieth Century Fox

And then, of course, there are the films where trains don’t involve murder and mayhem but something more transcendent. They represent freedom in Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic, “Bound for Glory” (1976) and the spirit of Christmas in “The Polar Express” (2004). In Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995), the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on a train in Europe, beginning a relationship that would last through two more films. And in Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) three brothers try to repair their fraternal bond on a train trip across India.

cary.daring@houstonchronicle.com




  • Cary Darling

    Cary Darling joined the Houston Chronicle in 2017 where he writes about arts, entertainment and pop culture, with an emphasis on film and media. Originally from Los Angeles and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, he has been a features reporter or editor at the Orange County Register, Miami Herald, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In addition, he has freelanced for a number of publications including the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News.

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