- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

We’re used to Hollywood movies that perpetuate sequels. The French filmmaker Patrice Leconte seems to be experimenting with a novel variation: melodramas that begin with a similar pretext, the chance meeting of strangers who are destined to make an impact on each other’s lives. Judging from “Man on a Bridge” a few years ago and now “Man on a Train,” lives of solitude and desperation have a particular appeal for Mr. Leconte.

The interaction yielded happier results in the first movie, which was formulated as an eccentric romantic comedy celebrating the benign aspects of chance and luck.

“Train” matches a pair of guys who may not have much to live for: the venerable pop star Johnny Hallyday as the title character, a craggy-visaged and tight-lipped man of mystery who arrives by train in a provincial town and finds shelter with Jean Rochefort as a retired, loquacious schoolteacher who welcomes companionship.

This may prove a banner year for actors with weather-beaten faces. A ravaged look and indomitable spirit do a lot for Nick Nolte in Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief.” It is doubtful that anyone could rival Mr. Hallyday for a ravaged look, and he has considerable authority as a brooding, secretive presence.

However, the Leconte conception deprives both him and Mr. Rochefort, the sociable and fun-loving contrast, of an indomitable spirit of camaraderie. In fact, the denouement takes a turn for the supernatural and pseudomystic that makes you think Mr. Leconte has been a terrible influence on his own characters because they have a comic potential that he prefers to shortchange and sacrifice in the long run.

Mr. Hallyday’s character seems to have a name in the synopsis: Milan.

I didn’t detect it in the subtitles, and I think it’s more entertaining to think of him as a Man Without a Name. The circumstances of his appearance recall Spencer Tracy in John Sturges’ “Bad Day at Black Rock,” but Milan does not have a high-minded and socially redemptive mission to perform. The teacher, Manesquier, who encounters him in a pharmacy and then offers him the hospitality of a spacious family home that has stagnated into a mausoleum, intuits a criminal inclination of some kind.

He’s correct, and as the men grow fond of their budding odd-couple attachment, a caper emerges from the shadows. Manesquier welcomes the dangerous intimations as a means of getting out of his own rut. During an exchange of favors, he imposes on Milan to indulge him an afternoon of target practice, using one of the handguns that seems to be a tool of the trade for his new acquaintance.

At the same time, the older man begins advancing arguments for a law-abiding change of plans that will preclude violence and keep the friendship intact. These suggestions have plenty of merit for the audience but less than you expect for the filmmaker, evidently committed to something drastic even if he doesn’t quite know what would be effective as a set-piece showdown.

The strong points of the presentation are Mr. Leconte’s evocative precision with settings and wide-screen composition and the leisurely, deceptively one-sided character interplay between the co-stars. A distinctive and amusing rhythm does arise from the unlikely convergence of one man’s need to talk with the other man’s tendency to clam up.

It’s also reassuring to see Jean Rochefort in seemingly chipper condition after the health crisis depicted in “Lost in La Mancha,” where he failed to sustain Terry Gilliam’s dream of being an ideal Don Quixote. “Man on a Train” compensates with a different kind of quixotic personality, matched with a hard-boiled update of Sancho Panza in Johnny Hallyday.

They’re not quite like any other sidekicks the screen has seen before. While recognizing the humor in this mismatch, Patrice Leconte neglects to give it a satisfying comic framework.

**1/2

TITLE: “Man on a Train”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Patrice Leconte. Decors by Ivan Maussion. Costume design by Annie Perier. Music by Pascal Esteve. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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