By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Bill Murray in Groundhog Day has a much easier time of being stuck in a time loop than Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code.
Nobody's plotting to blow up Punxsutawney, Pa., Murray isn't constantly dying, and he has the same 24 hours over and over to shape up his life. Gyllenhaal has the same eight minutes recycled with millions of lives in the balance, including the love of his life that he met, oh, about eight minutes ago. Groundhog Day is funny; Source Code is white-knuckle fun.
Director Duncan Jones (Moon) offers a fresh take on a stale formula: ticktock, ticktock, boom. The time loop gimmick gets used once or twice too often, and Jones' payoff abuses the already lax standards for sci-fi logic. But this movie hurtles past those lapses at a relentless pace, even in its mad science moments when all this malarkey gets explained.
Source Code begins with U.S. Air Force chopper pilot Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) awakening from a nap on a commuter train approaching Chicago. The last thing he remembers is flying a mission in Afghanistan, and a passenger (Michelle Monaghan) continuing a conversation with him is a stranger. Someone spills cola on his shoe, a loudmouth irritates people — minor things that happen all the time on public transportation and will again, several times in this movie.
Don Burgess' panicked camera expertly conveys Colter's confusion, and his shock at seeing another man's face in a restroom mirror. Then the train explodes, and Source Code gets trickier.
Colter awakens again, this time in a claustrophobic chamber just as baffling. He's being electronically monitored by Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who keeps Colter and the audience on a need-to-know basis, with a sisterly touch. Lurking in the background of her video feed to the pod is Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and he isn't happy.
We learn that Colter is part of the source code project, technology enabling him to enter another's body for brief periods as an antiterrorism weapon of sorts. That train was bombed, and Chicago may have other bombs planted somewhere. Colter's mind is being repeatedly sent to the body of a passenger to find clues to the identity of the bomber. He can't prevent the train's explosion, but maybe he'll save the city.
Each eight-minute loop reveals more, and increases Colter's affection for Christina Warren (Monaghan), the passenger chatting when he wakes up on the train. Ben Ripley's screenplay generally sticks to the rules it establishes until there's nowhere trippier to go except over the shark. By then, Source Code has entertained long enough — with not much running time left — to avert its own disaster.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.