Learning Day: Death Train

Death Train is a 1993 movie starring Pierce Brosnan. It is also a flop, a mess, and contains the most evil action I’ve ever seen perpetrated by a movie’s “heroes.” Here’s the trailer.

As you saw, this movie stars Pierce Brosnan AND Patrick Stewart AND Christopher Lee AND a couple other recognizable actors. It also gets called “Detonator”, in that trailer, because it’s a trailer for a VHS tape of Death Train – a made-for-TV movie they needed to trick people into buying.

Wow: what a box. I’d love to be glowered at by both those guys, from a shelf, in my 1993 media den. Also that box implies a thrilling conflict between Hero Brosnan and Looming Stewart. It would be fun to see those two face off. Now that I think about it, it would be mega-fun to see those two Face/Off. Two steely minds, flipping between having the most or least robust head hair. Follicle/Off ! But no: that is not this movie. You would have heard of that movie. Pierce and Patrick are boring allies in the movie Death Train aka Detonator aka 100 Minutes Of Phone Calls About Central European Rail Systems.

This movie is the perfect honeypot for capturing my attention. I’ve explored not one but two Pierce Brosnan movies for our website here. Why? Because he is my pop culture hero. Why? Because when I was impressionable, he played James Bond four times. As Bond, he imprinted himself on me. Like a mother duck, if that mother duck did one PAIN FACE over and over again and called that acting. That is James Bond, to me. I seek it wherever I can get it. And holy cow, this movie pits Pierce Brosnan against The Man With The Golden Gun (Christopher Lee). Its other main character is Jean-Luc Picard, doing the exact stuff “M” does in Bond movies (phone calls, British accent). And on a meta level, this 1993 movie is a key milestone of the Dalton-to-Brosnan Bond casting timeline. Brosnan almost became Bond in 1986. But Timothy Dalton got the role, made two Bond movies, almost shot a third film in 1990, and didn’t officially quit till 1994. As far as I can tell, here’s what happened next: Pierce Brosnan learned the role was open again around 1991. He spent the next few years re-auditioning, in public, by acting in every similar-ish movie he could find. His first effort toward that was Live Wire: The Movie Where Water Is Bombs. Did that flop? Yes. Did Pierce follow it up by starring in Death Train? Yes. He starred in a TV movie, with a few Bond-shaped elements, based on books by an Ian Fleming-shaped writer, because that’s less embarrassing than self-taping an action scene in Brosnan Manor’s backyard and mailing it to the Broccoli family.

See? Action! Somebody else held the camera and everything! Therefore, this is not sad. ALSO: this is astonishingly sad. Because when asked about this film by the media, Pierce did not admit the truth, and say he was angling for Timothy Dalton’s casino night cummerbund. Instead, he admitted a whole ‘nother truth, which is [TONE SHIFT INCOMING] this movie helped him forget his wife died. As you Avid Hotdoggers know, Pierce Brosnan spent the production of 1991’s Live Wire grieving. His wife passed away that year, after a long battle with cancer. (His wife was also a Bond Girl, which is both not relevant and mega-relevant.)

I had to know what Pierce did next. And when he made this movie, the Los Angeles Times did train-pun headlines about Brosnan resuming his career.

Ha! “Back on track” is right, L.A. Times. Toot toot: all aboard the Freshly Minted Widower Express! Because Death Train is indeed a train film. It’s overwhelmingly a train film. Its highlights are a few train-based action sequences, such as what I screencapped just now. In those sequences, Pierce and others do battle aboard THE DEATH TRAIN – a small, slow-moving train that contains a nuclear bomb. 

This train is the coolest part of the movie and the least-cool part of the movie. On the one hand: action! On the other hand: THE DEATH TRAIN is three cars long, and ordinary-looking as hell. This is an impediment to even the most basic thrilling moments. For example, around the 87-minute mark, there’s a shot of a television screen inside a burning villain lair. The TV’s news anchor tells us “the death train waits, empty!”, because our heroes defeated the train’s villainous occupants. However, we’re seeing that small train on a tiny TV screen. At that combined scale, THE DEATH TRAIN looks like A LI’L CHOO-CHOO.

The movie wants us to feel like THE DEATH TRAIN is an unstoppable force of doom. But our eyes remind us THIS SMALL TRAIN could be stopped by any modest obstruction. One stalled truck, one fallen tree, one ambling cow – any of these impediments could’ve aced out Brosnan to be the film’s real hero. Speaking of heroes, they do not do all that much action in this movie. Most of the film features the (cheaper) thrill of discussions, and planning sessions, inside a Mission Control style office where Patrick Stewart tracks The Death Train’s location.

The VHS cover promises a tense battle between two famous actors. The actual movie is a list of European rail hubs. It’s one actor saying the word “Stuttgart” to the other actor one hundred times. This movie feels like that tank chase in GoldenEye, minus the entire chase, replaced by a Shakespearean actor listing each boring strasse und alle which the tank’s route incorporated.

This is a movie where all the key crisis points are a set of train junctions in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Slovenia. That’s because the film’s villains are trying to bring a bomb, by rail, from Germany to Iraq. That is a silly plan. It’s also a failed plan, because the film’s heroes stop the train and seize the bomb in Slovenia. This conclusion accidentally gets foreshadowed by the heroes’ command center map, because the map yada-yadas the entire Middle East.

Also: this film involves Slovenia! It bothers to acknowledge the existence of Slovenia. Weird! I’ll bet you have not thought about Slovenia in a while. Most people do not. Yet the climax of this Hollywood movie is set there. Why would they feature Slovenia? For the answer, let’s turn back to those yuk-it-up jokesters at the L.A. Times.

That’s right: they filmed this in an active European war zone. Presumably for budget reasons. If nothing else, it sounds like hotel rooms were not overwhelmed with tourist clientele:

Relatable! Whenever I’m on a business trip, and my hotel is overrun by ragtag freedom fighters, my first reaction is “ha ha, wow!” and my second reaction is to say “working hard or hardly working? Amirite? It’s cool that I’m saying that because we basically do the same job.” That’s what I always say, in hotels, to troops. Anyway, the filmmakers went ahead and wrote their real-life war zone into the fictional script. Probably so they wouldn’t have to set-dress it as a different, cooler place. And Pierce Brosnan brought his remaining family members to the site of that civil war, to hang out, while he filmed a movie where he speaks in two different sets of accents. Surprise: Pierce Brosnan accidentally feels like James McAvoy in Split whenever he talks in this movie. He plays “Mike Graham”, a British guy who is also a U.S. CIA agent and a Kentucky semi-nude motorcycle racer.

Brosnan’s character is supposed to be a British person whose accent has shifted after years of living in the United States. That’s a challenging accent to get right. Brosnan tackles that challenge by speaking with a British accent most of the time, plus a deranged sprinkle of his best guess at a Duke Of Hazzard voice. It’s jarring and also plain confusing, because they did not mic his lines very well, so it’s hard to tell what he’s saying in general, let alone when he pulls an Uncle Jesse. Also, that garbling might be for the best. Pierce doesn’t say anything great in this movie. When they do let him talk, he wishes he was racing his motorcycle, and he wishes he wasn’t working with A Woman. Because look out: there is one woman in the Hero Squad. She’s part of the mission because after years of being stuck in an office job, she’s finally asked Patrick Stewart nicely enough for permission to save the world.

The movie then spends whole scenes debating whether its one notable female character should be in the movie. In a heated exchange, Stewart pushes Brosnan to accept her by describing a dizzying array of her skills, Mad Libs style.

To Brosnan’s credit, his co-star Alexandra Paul is not super convincing as a Mary Sue mega-genius spy/hero. She is no better than anybody else at stopping that dumb little train. Also, at one point she says the villain’s bomb contains “fishtuhble” material. I think she meant to say “fissible”, or “fissionable”, or any other real word. And the rest of the movie displays similar mastery of what words mean:

Yee-haw to that, General Stewart! Also that’s not even the funniest weird thing Patrick Stewart does in his command center thingy. Because here’s another way this movie is borked: it’s got the sloppiest and least lucrative product placement I’ve ever seen. Only two products get “placed” in this movie. They are a bottle of Pepsi… 

…and cans of Coca-Cola.

Which is…illegal? Or at least breaking a contract? You can’t place competing products in the same movie! Especially if they’re the most famous rivalry in the history of products! Both companies probably get their money back for that. Also each of them should be furious about how their products get depicted in this movie. Starting with Pepsi: as you saw, Patrick Stewart holds one. What is the context? A grim setback for our heroes. All our main characters watch grainy news footage of the terrorists chucking the corpses of murdered hostages off of the Death Train, as a warning to not get in their way. It’s legitimately grisly. The movie then shows us Heroic Woman being horrified, Heroic Brosnan being Masculine-Horrified, and…Patrick Stewart, being pretty calm, enjoying the first snack of the whole movie.

Refreshing! Yum. At least that Pepsi gets consumed normally. Coke gets used for mid-air emergency waterboarding. In Coke’s scene, most of a helicopter’s passengers are drinking it.

Then, suddenly, the heroes realize one passenger on the helicopter is a Soviet hardliner who’s been in league with the terrorists this whole time. (Oopsies!) Guns are fired. The pilot takes a bullet, and passes out. Thinking quickly, Protagonist Woman reaches for her can of Coke…

…and sugar-boards the pilot back to consciousness. The pilot hates this more than he hated getting shot. He reacted to the bullet by slumping quietly in his chair. He reacts to this Coke-shower by writhing and shrieking in agony.

Products-wise, that’s all! Those are the two recognizable products in the entire film. It feels less like advertising, and more like each brand exploited political “Equal Time” laws to purchase an attack ad against their opponent.

Back to the Pepsi room: this odd placement is not the end of the world. Other parts of the movie are literally the end of the world! Remember Patrick Stewart’s martial/marshal law speech? He said that to a couple new guys, presented as his team’s new Russian allies. I’ve screencapped those guys below. See if you can spot any clues that the Russian allies might actually be enemies, who harbor Soviet sympathies:

The problem is the untrustworthy shape of their skull bones! Surprise: I’m way into phrenology. Just kidding. I am not into phrenology. I am into flags. And I can tell these guys are anti-democracy and pro-Soviet because – get this – they have big Soviet flags on their jackets. This is a movie released two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet these cartoon Soviet moles proceed to infiltrate the United Nations, and sabotage Pierce’s hero team, in support of Russian general Christopher Lee’s plan. The plan: bring a nuclear bomb from Germany to Iraq, in a way that inspires Federal Russia to re-militarize and re-Communize.

Okay! Sure it does. Also, it does not. After defeating the terrorists and capturing The Tiny Death Train, Pierce defuses the nuclear bomb. He does this by cutting color-coded wires…and CUTTING THEM WRONG. In a thrilling three-step phone call, which distractingly involves a young Clarke Peters, multiple people tell Pierce Brosnan he must cut the white wire and then cut the red wire. That’s the order: white wire, red wire. White wire, red wire. Here are screencaps of what happens next:

Whoops! They wrote a “sequence of colored wires” sequence, and they filmed the wrong order. So I thought I watched our heroes blow up themselves and Slovenia. Instead…

Oh well. Also, maybe not even the dumbest nuclear bomb in this movie. It’s the smarter bomb, out of two. Because for reasons too dumb to summarize, Christopher Lee has a second atomic device on a plane. Brosnan and Woman pursue and board the Death Plane before it can take off. They also kill Lee. But oh no: Lee already started the trigger. I was extremely looking forward to Brosnan cutting the wrong wires again. But instead, Brosnan fails to cut the wires before the countdown finishes. And then:

That’s a message from the bomb-maker (Leitzig). The “bomb” does not go off. It does play an audio clip of Leitzig’s voice saying “Whoever is hearing this, I give you the rest of your life.” And…that’s all folks! Why? Huh? Don’t think about it. Movie almost over. This bomb message is followed by one shot of Brosnan and Woman being bored, and clothed, even though any Bond movie would have them start porking each other within moments of bomb defusal.

Then they walk into a fog bank and the credits roll.

And that’s the end of the story…for them. It is not the end of the story for the majority of people on that Earth. Because in the world of the movie, the villains were not able to explode any nukes or re-Communize any Russias. But in the process, the heroes of this movie inflicted a psychological terror attack on a massive global audience.

This movie’s pace is a big draggy mess. There’s lots of phone calls, and train rerouting, and reading information off of that old school 1990s printer paper with the perforated edges. Boring! Laggy! And yet, like so many crap movies, it has a few opposite-problem bursts of whipping through stuff too fast. In one burst, the Death Train is set to stop at the nearest podunk Cyrillic-script train station. You see, the Death Train is now global news, because word is out that it carries terrorists and a nuclear bomb. The on-train terrorists, led by the guy who played Jame Gumb in ‘Silence Of The Lambs’, decide to exploit this. They demanded and will receive a personal interview from the lead reporter for “GNN” (a global CNN)… 

…and they’re stopping to pick him up. Within seconds of that demand, the Hero Team is on the scene in Podunksberg with a plan in place. Hero Woman will pose as GNN’s camerawoman. Their associate, Zero Personality Version Of “Q”, will install a working rifle inside of a working TV camera.

This TV camera only has one bullet, because they’ve decided to keep it functional as a TV camera. Instead of just telling the terrorists they’re on TV, Hero Woman will film the terrorists with a working camera that delivers live streaming footage to a global audience. That working camera is also a working gun. 

Are you able to think through what would happen next? Congratulations: you are wiser than the makers of Death Train. Because the heroes do not think this through! They also do not, oh I don’t know, turn off the camera at any point. They go ahead and get aboard the train, get the terrorist leader on camera, let him talk for a bit, and then point-blank headshot him in front of the planet.

I’ll remember that part of this movie forever. Because in that world, everyone on Earth would remember it forever. They broadcast that live! Globally! And they broadcast it through the murder weapon! It’s a Zapruder Rifle. And that killing would be Kennedy Assassination / September 11th level notorious. Generations would go to therapy for it. Everyone would trade stories of where they were on Terrorist Pink-Mist Camera-Gun Day. Here on Earth Prime, a lot of us know the name of a politician who shot himself on TV, even though he was only a U.S. state treasurer. This movie’s heroes broadcasted and inflicted an extreme-close-up brainsplosion to the world. Compared to nuking Slovenia, that’s…alright it’s not a nuclear attack, physically. But psychologically, it’s [Slovenian word for Chernobyl].

It’s villainy on a level I’ve never seen depicted in these types of movies. The closest parallel I can think of is The Joker using TV broadcasts to turn Gotham insane. Bond movie villains tend to be far more gentlemanly about their threats, murders, lasers, et cetera. But not Death Train. AKA Detonator. AKA the dark revisionist Bond-ish movie tucked into the prologue to Brosnan’s Bond run. It’ll stick with me – but it didn’t stick with Pierce Brosnan. Within one year of making this Pain Face, under a Death Train, during a Brain Assault By Hero Woman…

…within one year of that, Pierce got cast as James Bond. One year later, in November 1995, the world received a positive form of brain-bombing from GoldenEye. Which means I can put this chapter of Brosnan’s life behind me. I must be done! That’s gotta be all the ignominy worth covering. Surely Death Train was the end of Pierce’s wilderness years of secret Bond auditions.. 

Okay but, come on, surely there were no other available months, in between Doubtfire and GoldenEye, when Pierce could’ve followed through on that ridiculous– 

Okay, wow. That’s real. Well at least there are no alternate posters for that. At least visually, in cover art and screencap form, my hero’s dignity remains fully intact–

Why do I feel funny? And why does my heart feel like it just grew a mustache…

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