Throw Sendhil from the Train

Let’s start with the obvious: Death, Deceit and Destiny Aboard the Orient Express is a miserable excuse for a title. Off the top of my head, I can drum up a handful of perfectly serviceable alternatives: Terror on the Orient Express, say, or Millennial Terror, or, my personal pick, the spoilery yet evocative Throw Sendhil from the Train.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

Death, Deceit and Destiny Aboard the Orient Express is a 2001 joint Canada-UK-Bulgaria-Italy production. Judging by the end result, it’s probably fair to assume that none of the aforementioned countries saw a return on their investment. It was filmed on location in Bulgaria with a largely Bulgarian cast and crew. Many of the actors appear to be speaking their lines phonetically. It stars Richard Grieco. These are not the elements of a breakaway hit.

It’s New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium, and a bunch of the world’s richest and most gullible are onboard the Orient Express bound for Istanbul as the guests of a mysterious benefactor. The setting led me to hope we were in for an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery, with Grieco as a do-rag-wearing Hercule Poirot, but alas, this was not to be. The mysterious host turns out to be a top international terrorist (future Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, a long way from his star turn in Inglourious Basterds), who has lured everyone onto the train for the purpose of extorting exorbitant ransoms for their release. The passengers include Grieco as a world-famous action star (don’t giggle. Twenty years ago, in the early days of the Fox network, Grieco was sort of famous, almost), a blustery Australian titan of industry, a blustery American titan of industry, a Russian ballerina and her sinister escort, a female pop duo, a washed-up actress, and sundry hangers-on. There’s also Heroes’ resident hot little piece, Sendhil Ramamurthy, who plays the sweet, shallow, slutty, party-boy son of the billionaire ruler of the totally made-up oil-producing nation of Bassan. As is so often the case with important Middle Eastern scions, his name is Nikki.

(There’s a nice moment during their initial meeting where Nikki shyly tells Grieco he’s seen all his movies, complete with mutual bashful smiles and blushes. Either there’s some freaking phenomenal acting going on, or Sendhil just outed himself as a longtime 21 Jump Street fan. In any case, it’s wholly charming.)

Shortly after departure, terrorists take over the train, murder the entire crew, and wire the train with explosives. After this promising start, the terrorists quickly descend into rank incompetence: instead of controlling and intimidating their hostages, they spend most of their time fetching champagne and caviar for them, all of whom seem more bored and irritated than terrorized. Early on, Grieco accidentally kills the Russian thug during a quarrel over the ballerina, and the terrorists pretty much shrug it off. I’m no expert, but it seems like this should be one of the ground rules of kidnapping and hostage-taking: try not to let your valuable captives murder each other. Grieco and the ballerina also spend a good third of the film’s zippy 83-minute running time scampering about on top of the train defusing bombs, and the terrorists can hardly be bothered to notice their absence.

In a superfluous yet welcome interlude, one of the pop stars lures beautiful Nikki back to her room for a champagne-fueled hand of strip poker. Nikki, I am delighted to say, loses. Yes, we do get a precious glimpse of Sendhil’s lovely ass, and isn’t that worth the 5.5 GBP I shelled out for the DVD on eBay right there, particularly in light of the current favorable exchange rate? (My copy, by the way, came from the Netherlands. I left on the subtitles, just because Dutch is the world’s most awesome language. For example, “We’re all going to die!” is translated as “We gaan allemaal dood!”)

The passengers, save Grieco, decide to give in to the head terrorist’s ransom demand. Grieco takes umbrage at this and sanctimoniously proclaims, “Who really is the bad guy here--him, or you?” Grieco, hon, it’s awesome that you’re too noble and/or foolhardy to kowtow to terrorists, but there’s no need to be a tool about it.

When Nikki calls his father to ask for the ransom money, the request gets intercepted by his evil twin brother, Yussef. Thus we come to the film’s most brilliantly nitwitty plot twist, which was probably just a happy accident when the filmmakers were unable to find a single actor of Middle Eastern origin, much less two, and just ended up asking Sendhil to play both parts. (Sendhil is, of course, not even remotely Middle Eastern. At first I considered being offended by the casting, then decided to let it go, seeing as: a) at least he’s not playing a terrorist, and b) at least the terrorists are all played by a bunch of white dudes. Progress! Or something!) It’s hard to have a bad plot twist involving an evil twin brother. That’s storytelling gold right there.

(Helpful hint for prospective parents of twins: You are courting disaster if you name one son “Nikki” and the other “Yussef.”)

Yussef, communicating to Nikki via a camera phone, is seen standing in front of a map of the Middle East. I’m all in favor of films keeping runaway production costs under control by not building extravagant sets for locations only used fleetingly, but that’s just sad. Anyway, Yussef, who is delighted at the prospect of terrorists blowing up his twin, gleefully refuses to cough up the dough for Nikki’s release. The terrorists manhandle Nikki a bit, then decide to throw him off the train. Here’s where I officially lose patience with them, for a couple of reasons:

1. Seeing as it’s a matter of a prospective fifty million dollars in ransom, maybe they should try a little harder to get the money before killing their cash cow, and:
2. Sweet, pretty, slutty party-boys are one of the world’s greatest natural resources and should be treasured accordingly.

Once it dawns on Nikki that they’re going to kill him, he pleads with Grieco to save him. Grieco, gutted by the impending slaughter of one of the few people who think If Looks Could Kill is a really good movie, caresses Nikki’s face a bit. This is sweet, but not of much practical help to poor Nikki, who gets tossed out the window. As this film ably demonstrates, it’s no small matter to toss a struggling adult out of one of those tiny, high train windows; I don’t mean to tell the terrorists their job, but trains have doors, too.

Enraged at the murder of doe-eyed Nikki, the passengers band together and set about karate-chopping and knifing the terrorists into submission. Now if they’d only been able to summon this outrage before Nikki got offed, maybe this movie would have been over before the train even pulled out of Paris. Mayhem ensues. Grieco and the ballerina scamper about on top of the train defusing more bombs. One of the terrorists rips off a rubber mask to reveal he’s actually… a totally different terrorist! I’m sorry -- I know it’s a pile of crap, but I’m incapable of hating any film that draws inspiration from Scooby-Doo episodes. The terrorists are thwarted, and the surviving passengers arrive safely in Istanbul in time for the turning of the millennium, fireworks and all.

One final note: the thrilling climax involves Grieco and the ballerina leaping off the moving train just as it explodes, whereupon they land safely on the ground. In light of this, and considering that we never see Nikki’s mangled corpse, I feel it is perfectly logical to assume he landed in an especially soft snowbank somewhere in Hungary and hoofed it to Budapest in his expensive loafers and cantaloupe-colored sweater, then made his way safely back to Bassan, whereupon he ordered his miscreant twin flogged in the public square before attending to more important affairs of state, like arranging to have Gwen Stefani perform at his birthday party. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what happened, and no doubt the director’s cut on the inevitable Criterion Collection DVD release will bear this out.

(Pictures used with permission from this cool site, which is a treasure trove of screencaps from some of the stranger backwaters of Sendhil’s filmography. Want to see a naked and bewigged Sendhil playing Adam in a Biblical epic? This is your kind of place.)


Mary said…
Oh god, this is hilarious. Like you, I was getting ready to get offended at the not-even-close ethnic casting, but it dissipated in a huge fit of giggles. God bless Sendhil.
Morgan Richter said…
It's a hooty, hooty film. I love Sendhil. Nobody can claim he hasn't paid his dues as an actor.
Anonymous said…
I have to thank you, and your five pound fifty, for satisfying my morbid curiosity about this film.
Morgan Richter said…
As lousy as this film is, it could have been worse. I expected it to be worse, actually. It's not even the worst film Sendhil's done -- at least I got some cheeseball entertainment value out of this, whereas I think that film he made with Chris Pine (Blind Dating) was pretty damn near unwatchable. This is just a fairly innocuous B-movie. And Sendhil takes his clothes off, so it gets bonus points for that.
levitatethis said…
Oh man, Morgan, I feel like I should pay you or make you baked goods for having sat through this. Your recap actually makes me want to see the film (Sendhil playing two characters!) for shits and giggles. It just sounds so...terrible. I mean, Richard Greico?!?! Sadly I remember when he was a kind of/sort of heart throb, or making his way to that status.

For the issues I've had with "Heroes" I'd like to think that being on it has afforded Sendhil far more opporunities and choices in terms of acting.

I'm one of the few people who saw "Blind Dating"...for Sendhil, of course (though you can imagine my amusement when all the promos for "Star Trek" started and I realized I knew Chris Pine from this movie and "The Princess Diaries 2") -- bad, bad movie.
Morgan Richter said…
You know, this straddles that line between just being a bad movie (Grieco and the ballerina run around on top of the train defusing bombs for waaaaaaaay too long) and a wildly entertaining bad movie (good twin Nikki versus evil twin Yussef! I mean, that's awesome). If you ever want to see it for yourself, and if you have a DVD player that can play Region 2 disks, let me know -- my sister's got first dibs, but after she's done, I'm quite happy to loan it out and thus prevent anyone else from spending money on it. For die-hard Sendhil buffs, it's worth seeing, though not worth going to much trouble for.

Blind Dating was the first film I ever saw Chris Pine in, and on that basis, I decided I hated him. Then I really liked him in Bottle Shock and loved him in Star Trek, so I have completely reversed my anti-Pine stance.

Have you ever seen Ultimate Force, the hyper-macho ITV series where Sendhil plays a bitchy, snobby, incompetent Special Forces soldier? It's fairly awful, no shock, but pretty darn entertaining.
levitatethis said…
I've actually seen a couple of episodes of "Ultimate Force". It used to air here in Canada on one of the extra cable channels but I honestly didn't remember Sendhil all that much on it. Probably wrote him off as the pretty boy :-)

I was totally indifferent to Chris Pine in "The Princess Diaries 2" (he's so not the type of guy I find interesting), didn't like him based on "Blind Dating" and then thought he was awesome in "Star Trek". Then again I pretty much fell in love with everyone who was in "Star Trek" was cast incredibly well. I knew all the actors from other roles, but they really clicked here. You're the second person who has told me to watch "Bottle Shock" so it looks like that's going on my rental list.

Let me see if my dvd player can play region 2. Either way thanks for the offer! I did the same thing for a bunch of people at work who were interested in reading the "Twilight" series. I, unfortunately, own the series and refused to allow any of them to go to the store and pay money for it. I also gave them permission to throw the books around their homes if they felt inclined to.
Morgan Richter said…
Bottle Shock is not necessarily a great movie, but it's got a cute cast, it's thoroughly enjoyable, and it has Alan Rickman being his usual awesome self. Made me want to pack up and move to the Napa Valley to start a vineyard.

Sendhil's only on the first season of Ultimate Force, which is a whopping six episodes long. I got a kick out of watching him, just because his character is preposterously nasty and spiteful, which is so very un-Sendhilish (he basically spends the season being a dick to his fellow squad members, until one of them gets fed up and throttles him, whereupon he becomes much nicer and mellower for the rest of his time on the show).
Morgan Richter said…
(I can't believe I forgot to mention this brilliantly ridiculous part of Death, Deceit & Destiny Aboard the Orient Express: for some unfathomable reason, good twin Nikki speaks with an English accent, whereas evil twin Yussef speaks with an American one. I have no idea why, but it adds an extra layer of hilarity to the scene where Sendhil argues with himself.)
levitatethis said…
Hmmm, I kind of want to see jackass Sendhil on "Ultimate Force" now...and Nikki/Yusef arguing with each other in two different accents? I must see this film!

Alan Rickman is one of those actors who makes everything worthwhile.
Morgan Richter said…
I've got Sendhil's season of Ultimate Force on Region 2 DVD as well, so again, if you've got a multi-region player (or if you convert your existing player to play all regions), I'm happy to loan it out.

I have no idea what the thought process was behind giving each twin a different accent, but it's delightfully random. As lousy as it is, it looks like the film might've been fun to make. I don't think anyone involved with the production was under any illusions they were actually turning out anything, y'know, good...
Morgan Dodge said…
I have no idea what the thought process was behind giving each twin a different accent

I bet it was so blind people could keep track of what the hell is going on. Also, the more different accents in any given movie, the better.
Morgan Richter said…
the more different accents in any given movie, the better.

By this standard, Death, Deceit and Destiny Aboard the Orient Express is a masterpiece, what with all the different accents flying around. Russian! Italian! American! Australian! English! It's a very cosmopolitan film, I guess...

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