An aging ne'er-do-well (Johnny Hallyday) gets off a train in a quiet French town, in the vicinity on undetermined business and aching for an aspirin. Locating the medicine but no water with which to take it, he finds himself invited into the home of a gabby stranger (Jean Rochefort) who lives a solitary life in a musty old museum of a house. The owner's mother died 15 years ago, and the place now stands perpetually unlocked: Its outwardly dotty master has long since lost the keys.
This much we learn in relatively short order, as the chatty host takes full advantage of his captive audience. His guest meanwhile, doesn't say much. But whatever appointment has brought this mystery man into town is both pressing and deadly. With the local inn closed up tight, he accepts an invitation to bed down. And as he unpacks, we notice that his personal effects include three guns.
Thus begins "Man on the Train," which despite its suspense-flick framework unfolds as a delightfully droll personality comedy. Director Patrice Leconte ("Girl on the Bridge") and screenwriter Claude Klotz have great fun contrasting the traits of Hallyday's Milan -- a craggy lampoon of the strong, silent type -- with those of Rochefort's character, Manesquier, who not-so-secretly pines to be everything his guest embodies. At least for an hour or two.
Manesquier, we learn, is a retired teacher, and Rochefort plays him as the archetype of every professor you ever loved: playfully self-deprecating and painfully aware of his own limited machismo. (There's a wonderful scene in which he tries on Milan's leather jacket, reveling in his reflection as the arrogant cowboy of a thousand transatlantic daydreams.) There's no better conduit for such resigned meekness than Rochefort's long, Bassett-hound face, which is only saved from terminal pathos by eyes that twinkle with amusement. Hallyday, meanwhile, gets to tweak his real-life history as a pop singer. Once dubbed "the Elvis of France," he's here cast as the sort of shady, faded rockabilly rebel who haunts garages and loading docks, offering the promise of muscle for hire.
Seeing their worlds collide proves beneficial to both men. Milan teaches Manesquier to drink; Manesquier introduces Milan to the pleasures of a good pair of bedroom slippers. But beneath the mischievous melody of their relationship, a note of urgency can be heard. The teacher, too, has a looming date with destiny, and his comically blithe mien may be a simple case of whistling past the graveyard.
"Man on the Train" is full of blessedly underplayed whimsy. Milan throws down with a group of hoodlums, one of whom speaks only once a day -- and at exactly the same hour. But the lion's share of our pleasure comes from the interaction of the two leads. In the gradual, gentle development of their friendship, we can see something that's all too rare in movies these days: the sight of two middle-aged men of different worlds, exploring their underlying commonality in a manner that's free from self-ashamed innuendo. Hop that train while you still can.