South by Southwest, Austin’s indie festival, was christened as a wink to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which zips through Texas on its speedy tour of the US. Lately, the music and interactive wings have taken flight, leaving the cinematic one a little clipped. But the 25th festival returned to first principles, with an opening night film besotted by the Cary Grant adventure.

Right from the titles, it’s clear that for Duncan Jones, the British director whose Moon premiered here two years ago, North by Northwest is not just for Christmas viewing. In a swooping survey of downtown Chicago, freeways criss-cross, the river snakes and doubledecker locomotives power round rails, missing each other by inches. But Hitch’s shadow looms larger than mere train fixation. For this is a tale of mistaken identities and mysterious dames, strange agencies and impromptu heroics – an unabashed entertainment, moving, amusing, difficult to resist.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a helicopter pilot serving in Afghanistan who wakes to find himself on a commuter train to Chicago, in someone else’s body. He gets grouchy with the girl (Michelle Monaghan) sitting opposite, who’s convinced they’re both teachers, and with his fellow passengers.

After eight minutes, the carriage blows up. But rather than dying, he’s transported back to a grimy chopper capsule, where he’s given instructions via a videolink by two military commanders – one sympathetic (Vera Farmiga), one suspect (Jeffrey Wright). They explain: the train did blow up, earlier today. It was the warning shot before a dirty bomb is detonated downtown. His mission (and he has no choice but to accept it) is to stop that happening. Which is why his brain has been teleported into the head of a man who died in the blast, to exploit the eight-minute short-term memory window in which circuits can keep functioning after death (don’t quote me on that). So Gyllenhaal is returned repeatedly to the scene, reliving those moments until he identifies the bomber.

It’s testimony to Jones’s professionalism how convincing he makes such claptrap. Within minutes you’re nodding along to the Groundhog-Day-from-hell logic. But rather than just learning to be less grumpy, like Bill Murray, Gyllenhaal must save the world, and against two separate ticking clocks. And though high stakes don’t always translate into high drama, in this case, they’re a good fit. At a festival known for pioneering the mumblecore genre, it’s refreshing to see a film in which dialogue is largely barked. Not that there’s no shade; breathing time comes in Gyllenhaal’s claustrophobic solo scenes that inescapably recall Moon (fraying astronaut Sam Rockwell psycho-battles a computer voiced by Kevin Spacey). So much so it’s hard to believe Source Code was just a studio script in search of a director, rather than a project machine-tooled to Jones’ proclivities.

Some may regret that Jones has chosen to dive headfirst into the mainstream rather than exploring the artier channels Moon opened up. But the pleasures of a slick thriller should not be underestimated. And the prospect of a festival that continues with bangs, rather than whimpers, is exciting indeed.