Stop the train. Judge Daryl Loomis wants to get off.
Our review of Night Train, published July 10th, 2009, is also available.
The next stop may be your last.
Meeting people on the train can be an exhilarating, mysterious experience. The feeling is much different than on a plane; there's room to move around, a sense of freedom you can't have on a 727 with ol' Snorey sawing away next to you. You sit across from somebody and start talking. In no time, it seems like you've gotten to know them, but you may not even know their real name. Trains are big enough to carry plenty of secrets and they're a ripe setting for movie thrillers. Unfortunately, all that built-in intrigue does not always add up to a very good film.
Facts of the Case
An aging train conductor who is just too old for this sh-t (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon), a med-student with her nose permanently in a book (Leelee Sobieski, In a Dark Place), and a travelling salesman in a cheap suit (Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn) together find a dead body on the train late one night. Ordinarily, the conductor would just call the police, but this corpse is carrying something: a box filled with jewels that will not open. Instead, they try to break into it and will stop at nothing to get at what's inside.
Night Train is a good example of a film whose writer has lofty ambitions, but not the ability to pull them off. The story begins in standard thriller fashion, with plenty of Hitchockian overtones, and quickly takes on aspects of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre after they find the box. The opening half moves right along and, while nothing here that screams out the makings of a great film, there is certainly some promise for the second half. Instead of keeping his film simple and straightforward, serving both his budget and ability, writer/director M. Brian King decides to jump head-first off the deep end.
At a point about midway through the film, another character shows up looking for the dead man, thinking he's still alive. He wants the box, too, but not what's inside; he wants to destroy it. This doesn't sit too well with our friends, obviously, but what he tells them sits even worse. He brings the supernatural into the picture, revealing that the people don't see what they think they see. There's no previous indication of this and , out of the blue, we learn that where Zahn sees rubies, Glover sees diamonds and Sobieski sees something more intangible, something unexplained. My guess is King couldn't figure out what he wanted, and so left it blank. Its exclusion makes the revelation seem only half thought out and makes Sobieski's motivations murky, at best. Once they learn about the supernatural properties of the box, the film spins wildly out of control to its senseless, hole-riddled ending.
There's nothing special in the performances to help the story out, either. Danny Glover seems to have one role at this point in his career. No matter what, life has beaten him down and he's just about to retire. After Steve Zahn's superior performance in Rescue Dawn, I hoped that he had left behind the dopey loser he became known for. But no, he's pretty dopey. Leelee Sobieski, much as I like her, can tend toward the wooden in her performances and this is at its most pronounced here. She looks great with a meat cleaver in her hand, but if this is the best I can say, we aren't working with too much here. Some side characters inject a little quirky comic relief, but not nearly enough to make a real difference.
NEM's Blu-ray release of Night Train is mixed, performing somewhat better than the standard definition will, but it's unclear how much; the technical aspects certainly didn't blow me out of the water. The 1080i transfer looks solid most of the time during the interior shots of the train, where the colors are vibrant and the details are clear. The film looks considerably worse during the exterior scenes, however. These are all set at night and the shots of the train in motion are CGI. All of this, especially the CG effects, look very murky with the occasional bit of blocking. In Hi-def, the low budget effects look even more obvious with the added clarity, and it really makes me wonder if the SD version is going to look bad. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio mix fares quite a bit better. The train is loud and realistic sounding, with good separation; I did feel, at times, like I was on the train. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio doesn't have quite the same power, but it is still pretty good. The extras are our standard fare. A making-of featurette explains the same thing we always get in these pieces: everybody's so proud of the film, they all worked so hard, they love the results, yadda yadda yadda. Interviews with the cast and crew do more of the same and an image gallery and a trailer round us out.
I like trains. I like riding them, I like the sound they make, and I like movies about them. I don't like a half-written story that blindly charges ahead when things make less and less sense every second, even if it's about trains.
Guilty. Choo choo.
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