What is it about trains that make them such an alluring mode of transportation? Is it rooted in some nostalgic craving for a more old fashioned way of getting around or, perhaps, the soothing hum of the wheels rolling against the track? Whatever it may be, Hollywood seems to be especially captivated by them.
Just as there many movies that take place largely on planes, there are just as many movies set on trains and we seem to be getting more and more of them every few years or so. In fact, one of the most talked about movies released in 2022 was Bullet Train, which is just one of many examples available on streaming or as a digital rental that we have compiled below. We will make that action-packed summer blockbuster our first stop.
Bullet Train (2022)
A luckless American assassin (Academy Award winner Brad Pitt) hoping to peacefully complete his assignment to retrieve a briefcase from a Japanese train discovers that there are other violent people on board with the same goal.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: David Leitch of Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 fame directs the star-studded Bullet Train cast in this cartoonishly funny, non-stop action thrill ride inspired by Kotaro Isaka’s novel that will make its streaming debut on Netflix.
Murder On The Orient Express (2017)
A world-famous Belgian private investigator (Kenneth Branagh) boards a train to London where he is forced to use his detective skills to figure out which of his fellow travelers is responsible for the sudden, mysterious death of one passenger.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: Also directed by Branagh, this recent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s quintessential whodunit and one of the more famous of her Hercule Poirot-led novels, Murder on the Orient Express, is yet another star-studded tale of international intrigue on railroad tracks that, in 2022, spawned the follow-up Branagh was hoping to adapt, Death on the Nile.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
An engaged woman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train leaving Europe and becomes convinced that a middle-aged English governess (May Whitty), whom she met a day before, has been kidnapped when she is suddenly nowhere to be found, and partners with the few fellow passengers who believe her to get to the bottom of it.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: Another classic mystery set on a train is The Lady Vanishes — the original adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s story, “The Wheel Spins,” and one of the best movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock for the timelessly clever ways it succeeds in playing with expectations.
The Commuter (2018)
A former cop turned insurance salesman (Liam Neeson) on his daily commute home is forced to rediscover and use his detective skills when a stranger (Vera Farmiga) makes him an offer that puts him, the other passengers on his train, and his family in danger.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: A more modern, stylized, and entertainingly absurd mystery that is set on a train is The Commuter, which bears many similarities to another one of Neeson’s best movies directed by Jaume Collet-Sera called Non-Stop — a modern, stylized, and entertainingly absurd mystery from 2014 that is set on a plane.
Source Code (2011)
A military officer (Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal) is forced to help investigate a terrorist bombing that took place on a train by inhabiting the body of one of the passengers just minutes before the incident occurs.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: Another one of the best Vera Farmiga movies set primarily on a train is Source Code — a cleverly constructed sci-fi twist on this locationally specific mystery subgenre and the second film by Moon director Duncan Jones.
Train To Busan (2016)
A busy South Korean executive (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter (Su-an Kim) board a train heading to where the little girl’s mother lives and are forced to fight for their lives when most of their fellow passengers are suddenly turned into flesh-eating, fast-moving monsters.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: One of the most realistically frightening zombie movies in more recent years is co-writer and director Sang-ho Yeon’s acclaimed Asian horror movie, Train to Busan — a relentlessly brutal one-way trip into hell and one of the best horror movies on Shudder, also.
Several people board a self-sustaining bullet train right before a failed experiment to reverse climate change leaves the outside world uninhabitable, leading them to develop a fascist class system that the underprivileged passengers intend to rebel against after seventeen years stuck in the caboose.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: Another modern classic from a masterful South Korean filmmaker (Academy Award-winning Parasite director Bong Joon-ho) that is also set primarily on a train (and is also one of the best Chris Evans movies) is Snowpiercer — a visually stunning, intensely gripping, and thought-provoking adaptation of a French dystopian graphic novel which was later reimagined into a series on TNT.
The Taking Of Pelham 123 (2009)
A group of armed hijackers board a New York City subway and threaten to kill passengers one by one if their demands are not met, forcing a recently demoted transit dispatcher (Academy Award winner Denzel Washington) speaking to the hijackers’ leader (Academy Award nominee John Travolta) to take action.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: The train may not move here, but the thrills never stop in The Taking of Pelham 123 — director Tony Scott’s fun remote cat-and-mouse game based on the novel by John Godey.
A veteran train engineer (Denzel Washington) and the younger, recently hired conductor partnered with him (Chris Pine) are forced to prevent a potential disaster when a freight train carrying hazardous and explosive chemicals in its cargo is accidentally left charging toward a small town with no brakes and no one at the controls.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: Tony Scott followed up The Taking of Pelham 123 with another, more fast-paced and high-stakes thriller set on a train, that also stars Washington, called Unstoppable — a tale of men chasing down a mechanical monster based on a true story.
Runaway Train (1985)
After successfully escaping from an Alaskan prison, an aging criminal (Jon Voight) and a younger, hot-headed boxer (Eric Roberts) board a mostly empty train and are forced to fight for their lives, along with a railway worker (Rebecca DeMornay), after the train is suddenly left speeding along with no brakes and no one at the controls.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: An earlier film about a runaway train is… well, Runaway Train — a tale about men chasing freedom and falling into an unstoppable nightmare that earned both Voight and Roberts Academy Award nominations for their electrifying performances in this gripping ‘80s action classic from director Andrey Konchalovskiy.
The General (1926)
After his request to join the Army is denied, an accident-prone railroad engineer (Buster Keaton) is forced to hunt down and retrieve a locomotive stolen by enemy soldiers, who also have the woman of his dreams held captive on the train, during the American Civil War.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: One of the earliest films about an ordinary hero chasing down a train is The General — perhaps the most famous and most exciting film starring comedic (and famously death-defiant) silent film icon Keaton, who also co-wrote and co-directed the movie with Clyde Bruckman.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
One year after last meeting for their father’s funeral, three estranged brothers (Owen Wilson, Academy Award winner Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) board a train traveling through India in an attempt to reconcile their differences and bond with one another.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: A more recent, more subtle, and quirky comedy set primarily on a train is The Darjeeling Limited — one of the best Wes Anderson movies, which the aesthetically and tonally distinct filmmaker also co-wrote with star Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.
The Polar Express (2004)
As he begins to struggle with his belief in Santa Claus, a young boy (a role shared by Tom Hanks and Daryl Sabara) is offered the chance to board a train filled with other children from around the world heading toward the North Pole.
Why it is one of the best movies set on a train: A movie set primarily on a train that is funny, exciting, and a wonder to look at is The Polar Express — director Robert Zemeckis’ first feature-length experiment with performance capture and a fun holiday film perfect for the whole family, based on the cherished children’s book by author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg.
I suppose there is just no other mode of transportation more poised to be captured on film than a train. See for yourself why by streaming the 13 diverse titles above.
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Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.