Masgoon Transit (Transit Prisoner) is an accomplished, well-written thriller boosted by adept performances and unfussy direction.
At the heart of the film is a feeble, forgettable moral message placed to infuse the story with a much-needed purpose. But it doesn’t, and the film ultimately comes off as a plain genre exercise, albeit a good one. But there’s nothing more to it, and the strong moral dilemmas the film coyly hints at are swapped by the genre’s trappings and the desperate urge for presenting some fairly predictable twists.
The film centres on Ali El-Dakkak (Ahmed Ezz), a young skilful safe robber about to carry out his very last job before retiring and emigrating to Italy. Ali is a smart, frisky, easygoing college graduate forced to resort to crime after failing to supply his ailing mother with her costly medications.
As always, his plans don’t go as expected, and he ends up shooting a security guard by accident. He gets caught on the spot and is sentenced to 25 years in prison. Days later, a shady man enters his cell and offers to discharge him from prison. The stranger is Shawky (Nour El-Sherif), a police officer who hires Ali to steal critical documents of national security importance from, surprise, surprise, an Israeli army general.
Shawky schemes a flawless plan for Ali’s getaway, replacing his body with a dead man’s and setting up a public funeral to obliterate his identity for good. Shawky then forges a new passport for Ali, awards him a bonus and sends him to Kuwait. Fast forward six years, Ali has become a wealthy, suave car agency owner named Abdel Rahman. He’s married to young, pretty bourgeois lass (Eman El-Assy) and has a young son he named Ali.
With a successful business and a stable, quiet familial life, nothing seems capable of disrupting his peace. That is until one day Shawky re-enters his life.
Now a general, Shawky commands Ali to nick some documents from the corrupted MP Hassan Mowafi (Mohammed Abu Dawood) who is suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda. When Ali rejects Shawky’s orders, the latter threatens to divulge his past. Soon, Ali’s life starts crumbling.
After the lukewarm reception to her last effort “The Hostage in 2006, director Sandra Nashaat springs back to solid form that, nevertheless, lacks the edginess and zest of her career-defining film “Alex Prive, a film widely credited for the flood of thrillers that have invaded Egyptian screens these past couple of years.
In “Transit, Nashaat ditches her off-putting, flashy Michael Bay-like shots that marked her past works for a subdued, calculated direction that marks her official foray into maturity. She occasionally shows some scenes from fast, multiple angles, and the film’s measured pace turns frantic with the last act. Yet, she gives enough room for the story’s major revelations to gradually unfold in an organic manner while keeping the audience in her grip.
As dexterous and composed as Nashaat’s direction is, there’s nothing extraordinary about it. Nashaat’s talent often feels impeded by a script so obsessed with crafting a well-constructed genre piece that it discards the space for creating a story much more compelling than the final outcome.
Writer Wael Abdallah sticks closely to the rules, depriving his characters from additional, enriching dimensions. The central twist of the last act can be easily detected when observing the characters’ behaviour and actions. Unlike the disastrous “A Returning Point released earlier this year, “Transit doesn’t cheat its audience or glide into the outlandish; but it doesn’t astound either.
Abdallah’s sole audacious move lies in the exceedingly dark path he directs his characters to by the end of the film that turns into a vengeance tragedy. He doesn’t go all the way though, opting instead for a conservative finale.
After more than half a dozen pictures of playing the same witty, street-smart hunk, Ezz exhibits astonishing depth and intensity unseen before in his previous efforts. There’s a deep-seated anguish mixed with anxiety and regret sharply beaming from his eyes that hardly diminishes during the course of the film.From Ali’s carefree posture of the first act, passing through his palpable weakness and fear in the middle part and ending with a dose of pure repressed rage and wretchedness, Ezz juggles these contrasting emotions with seamless aptitude. This is, by far, Ezz’s best performance to date.
As for El-Sherif, the revered Egyptian star erases all memories left by his recent forgettable turn in “Baby Doll Night with a delightfully sinister performance as Ezz’s adversary. Far from a weighty dramatic role, El-Sherif revels in his character’s wickedness, exhuming a titan-like charisma and holding nothing back. The many scenes that feature both stars are electrifying, brimming with energy and force that outweigh the story itself. Perhaps the most exciting facet of the film is the dynamic relationship between the two, shifting from predator-prey to the other way round in the third act.
Thrillers are increasingly becoming one of the most difficult genres to work with, simply because it’s been milked to death. The exceptional thrillers of last year – “Michael Clayton , “No Country for Old Men , “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and “The Bourne Ultimatum – exploited the templates of the genre, tweaked them and remodelled them to offer something more stirring than a few thrills.
The best examples of the genres, from Hitchcock’s classics to Kurosawa’s “High and Low and Melville “Le Samouraï, presented a variety of philosophical and social themes in a highly innovative context, rendering the genre a hollow vehicle susceptible to an endless amount of reshaping.
Rare straight thrillers like “The Sting , “Body Heat or “Inside Man chiefly work for pure entertainment value, relying on a clever, jolting twist, brisk dialogue or super cool characters. These elements, alas, are absent from “Prisoner, a film that never feels gripping enough to remember or demand subsequent viewings.
If film were wine, “Transit Prisoner would be a Franzia. Franzia is an average wine, popular, simple and fits the purpose. It is worlds apart from Pinotage, a smoky, rich and elegant wine that leaves you in utter exhilaration. I personally prefer the Pinotage.