Train to Busan

4 out of 5

Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho

Zombies on a train.  It’s a simple pitch – simple to understand, certainly, even for the lay zombie-movie viewer – and simple enough to execute, given a few variables common to such films: is there a central hero?; is there a solution?; what kind of zombies are these – fast or slow?; and etc.

Regarding that last one, ‘Train’ opts for the fast breed, which is a nice way to instantly amp up the intensity in a confined space, but despite how “easy” I’m making this formula sound, the deluge of offerings in this genre from over the years proves a couple of things: you can have a great setup and still make an unsuccessful film, or you can follow the most traditional templates set forth by classics – Dawn of the Dead, y’all – and still deliver something that feels fresh and compelling.

While ‘Train to Busan’ has its share of tweaks on the norms (including that setting), it very much slots into the latter category of entirely succeeding in entertaining (and terrifying) by just sticking to its guns.  Director Yeon Sang-ho allows for a couple of more obvious computer-assisted excesses in his zombie swarms, but otherwise keeps things very grounded in his concept: father and daughter board a train; zombie outbreak occurs – on some train cars, at most stations; so stay on the train until they get to where they’re going – Busan, and reunification with mommy.  The 2-hourish runtime is well broken up by not only survival gambits on the train itself, but some settings switch-ups when we have to stop at various points due to havoc.  There’s also a well-contained “core” cast that gives us character arcs – the selfish person; the “good” person; the “evil” person; the old person; the child – and are given committed, believable performances by each actor.

All of this works together miraculously well – thanks to Sang-ho’s control of the visuals and script – to just create a solid movie, one without any unnecessary added twists to the genre, and even foregoing the generally requisite “shoot ’em in the head” / “it must be some kind of virus” exposition sidenotes that come with the scene.  We step toward explanation for a single sentence, but it’s used more as a character beat than something to unravel plotty mysteries; ‘Busan’ isn’t concerned with how to resolve this thing – it’s just about survival.

Admittedly, this zeroed in focus does come at the expense of furthering things beyond entertainment value.  Not that that should be underrated, but the movie’s emotions move in such wide, generic swaths that it’s hard to get very invested in anybody’s arc.  That’s not to say that these things still aren’t excellently handled – lead father (Gong Yoo) and daughter (Kim Su-an) are both great at making somewhat generic roles into fleshed out characters – I just didn’t have to dig very deep in my movie lexicon to instantly understand the path any given character would take in the film.

But don’t let that dissuade in the tiniest: Train to Busan is a gem in the zombie genre, proving that flashy editing and gasp-worthy twists aren’t required if you can professionally handle the basics of competent scripting and pacing, the rarity of instances of such successes suggesting those maybe aren’t such “basic” elements after all.