One of the ways Call of Duty is superior to life is its respawn feature. When you die, you’re just right back at it a few seconds later. A little wiser and more aware of your surroundings, and a whole lot more driven to assault-rifle the 15-year-old who talked about your momma as he blew off your head and teabagged your virtual corpse.
Source Code takes the respawn and runs with it. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as an Army pilot stuck with a mission to identify a terrorist on a Chicago train. His mysterious commanders implant his consciousness into the mind of a schoolteacher, giving him eight minutes to flirt with Michelle Monaghan, assault passengers at his whim, surf the internet with slow-loading smartphones he swipes from passers by, dart his eyes around in frantic worry and, if he has any time at the end of all that, try and find the guy who destroys Chicago.
Under no circumstances is Gyllenhaal to rescue Monaghan or the other doomed passengers. The technology, dubbed Source Code, is only meant to dig up info that can prevent crimes, not alter the past. But little do the Source Code masters realize that Gyllenhaal is a bad boy who plays by his own rules.
There’s plenty working against the film. There’s no drama to the proceedings because there’s nothing really at stake since Gyllenhaal is allowed infinite continues. The only way the movie can possibly end is by Gyllenhaal succeeding. On the other hand, you know he’ll fail for the first few dozen times, otherwise the movie would be about as long as a Looney Tunes short. Thus the film amounts to watching a person who’s very bad at a video game and not all that interested in completing it just sort of muck around until he lucks into success.
On top of all that, the plot dynamics make little sense, avoiding important metaphysical questions such as where the consciousness of the teacher goes when Gyllenhaal is at the controls or how creepy it is that Vera Farmiga, Gyllenhaal’s commanding officer, looks so much like Jake’s real-life sister Maggie.
Despite everything working against it, Source Code works. It’s partially because of Gyllenhaal’s determined yet befuddled performance, as well as the star-crossed chemistry he generates with Monaghan, and partially because of all the secrets and contradictions the film has little intention of exploring or explaining. Director Duncan Jones, whose last effort was the equally confounding Moon, just has a knack for this kind of cinematic mindgame.
Either that or he owns and operates Source Code technology that lets him go back in time and tweak his films again and again until they convince you that they make sense and are more cohesive and compelling than they should be.