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Snowpiecer

Snowpiercer
Directed by Bong Joon-ha
Now playing at the Charles Theatre

Spoiler alert: Rich people suck. Director Bong Joon-ho establishes this theme in his dystopic sci-fi/action flick "Snowpiercer" early on and reinforces it over and over again all the way through to the end credits. As the film's polemic engine chugs along, so does the plot, and the action, and the verve and invention that the South Korean auteur behind "Memories of Murder" and "The Host" brings to nearly every sequence. The result is a hurtling good time that nonetheless never lets you off easy. It will be hard not to be swept up, no matter where you land among the taxable-income brackets.

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As the deft exposition sketches, an attempt to reverse global warming runs amok and plunges the world into a catastrophic deep freeze. The last surviving humans all live aboard an enormous train that hurtles around the planet in an annual circumnavigation. As on most trains, coach leaves much to be desired. The "passengers" in the filthy, dank rear cars live crammed together, watched over by brutal guards and fed only shiny black ingots of mystery protein. If one of the sleek, well-fed folks from the front of the train needs something—a concert violinist, a child of a certain height—they come back and take. They do not ask.

Bong doesn't take much more time to establish these basics than it does to describe them—he's got a class war to launch. And this is where things get really fun. A distraught prole (Ewen Bremmer) dares to defy his de facto betters by hurling his shoe at one of them. This inspires the appearance of Minister Mason, played by a brilliant Tilda Swinton styled like Margaret Thatcher's awkward spinster sister. The minister delivers a veritable anti-Saint Crispin's Day speech, invoking the sort of natural order of beings that went out with feudalism and holding up the hurled brogue as a symbol of disruptive evil—"size-10 chaos," she spits. Suitably inflamed, reluctant-to-lead Curtis (Chris "Captain America" Evans in broody mode) soon leads his fellow rabble on an assault that proceeds up the length of the train and through the rest of the film.

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In look and flavor, Bong's cartoonish allegory has plenty of precedent, including the Rube Goldberg post-apocalypse of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Delicatessen" and the officious ministries and filing-cabinet-gray retro-futurism of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." CGI exterior shots of the train now and then find it literally coming off the rails, like a careening steam plodder from an old Mickey Mouse short.

But Bong isn't kidding around. The occasional air of whimsy created by the production design or a particularly broad caricature of a smug first-class type is undercut by cruelty and death. Characters you come to like are stabbed, slashed with an ax, and shot in the face, and their deaths are never played as noble sacrifices. "Snowpiercer" performs the neat trick of being an action flick that rarely lets you lose yourself in mindless action, no matter how many massed ax battles it throws at you. The unfairness of the fight, and the unfairness that caused it, are always there.

Curtis and other coach characters get traits and backstories that keep them well on this side of noble savages. The upper-class characters get less shading, but their motivations are entirely relatable. If they're not on top, they're at the bottom, and the top is much nicer.

There's much, much more to unpack in terms of characters, intrigues, themes, and more—almost too much. Some of the advance buzz regarding the film swirled around a since-withdrawn gambit by Harvey Weinstein, the film's notoriously meddlesome distributor, to prune it from just over two hours closer to the standard 90 minutes. Still, it's hard to believe that a film this packed with carefully layered detail and filigree could have survived such an edit, and any red herrings or idiosyncrasies soon get swept up in the momentum.

And it's hard not to remain unswayed by the film's message. When the guards round up all the children from the rear of the train and a front-of-the-trainer inspects them, you expect her to scoop up the cutest. But no, she measures them with a tape measure, like a plank or a piece of furniture, and the way that people sometimes complain about the abstract "poor" drifts across your mind. The way that Mason and the other folks in charge use language to reinforce the idea that their oppression is an ordained order—"as in the beginning," Mason says at one point—the more the rhetorical framing of today's public and religious discourse presses in. The uncomprehending expressions of the rear-of-the-trainers as they burst into the luxe salons of the 1 percent—which actually resemble what passes for ordinary "reality" in most Hollywood films—may very well spread across your own face by that point.

As the train, and the film, speed toward the climax, the standard Hollywood rendition of such a story would be rounding the turn toward some sort of redemption. Bong's not interested. As Curtis comes to find, rich people suck, but the system that created and perpetuated the relationship between the front and back of the train sucks more. Bong's ending carries the allegory forward in way that's both audacious and satisfying, just like the rest of the two hours that came before.

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