Night Train

Night Train (2009)
National Entertainment Media
Cast: Danny Glover, Leelee Sobieski, Steve Zahn
Extras: Featurette, Interviews, Photo Gallery, Trailer

Set in an indistinct location in a vaguely contemporary time period, "Night Train" features a nightmare journey on what appears to be the Polar Express. On an ethereally snowy night, a mysterious man climbs aboard the titular train without a ticket only to quickly turn up dead after ingesting a handful of pills and a mini bottle of vodka. Nosy passenger Peter Dobbs (Steve Zahn), a traveling salesman, inspects a Christmas package in the dead man's hands, finding a small wooden box inside. Catching a glimpse of the box's contents, Peter alerts the train's conductor (Danny Glover) and fellow passenger Chloe White (Leelee Sobieski), a sullen medical student, to something valuable within that may be of interest to the three of them—so long as no one else ever knows of the man's death on the train. The only question is, what to do with the body?

This basic premise certainly has the hint of a Hitchcockian thriller, and writer/first-time director M. Brian King scatters enough references to classic films such as "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), and "Strangers on a Train" (1951) throughout to clearly indicate that he is trying to evoke the spirit of greater works of the past. But he lacks the personal style of a Hitchcock or a John Huston, and his debut film comes off as more of a pale imitation of his predecessors than an effective homage or throwback. A story like this, which follows the moral descent of three ostensibly normal people whose unleashed greed drives them to commit deeds of unthinkable violence, would benefit from the careful attention to character development that Hitchcock or Huston brought to their films, but King rushes into the action so quickly that we are not given a chance to understand who these characters are before they are ready to dump a body in an icy river. Because all three characters are blank slates from the start, it is impossible to appreciate just how much the box's valuable contents affect them; for all we know, they might as well have been psychopaths to begin with.

As the film progresses, the wooden box is given an unexpectedly mystical power, suggesting a Pandora's Box similar to the "great whatsit" of "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) that ended that film in a fiery holocaust. More characters are introduced into the plot and quickly disposed of, and the story devolves further toward a typical horror-splatter film, with mounting gore effects and an ever increasing body count. With graphic violence taking center stage, King betrays his own objective to make a classical thriller and succumbs to the standard triteness of direct-to-DVD schlock.

King managed to assemble a team of dedicated B-level actors who, under the right circumstances, can be first rate, but he leaves them floundering here with vacuous characters. Danny Glover glides through the majority of the film with a fixed expression of disbelief on his face (perhaps he is wondering how a slew of 80s and 90s hits brought him to junk like this). Poor Leelee Sobieski takes on the brainy chick stereotype by sporting a black knit cap and large-rimmed glasses in the first half of the movie only to be reduced to an irrational sex object in the second. Only Steve Zahn is able to establish a likeable presence with his dorky quirks, although he is still unable to transcend his character's two-dimensionality.

Mirroring the film's overall lack of quality, the frequent visual effects are laughably bad. Exterior shots of the train moving were created entirely with CGI, and the results look like playback from a mediocre video game. The cutting between live-action interiors and the digital exteriors creates a jarring effect that immediately takes us out of the movie. With these constant disruptions, it may be an ironic advantage that the film builds up no tension to be detracted from.

NEM (National Entertainment Media), an apparently new company, has brought "Night Train" straight to DVD and Blu-ray disc. The Blu-ray edition features a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer in 1080i high definition. There is some light grain and occasional artifacting. The image lacks depth and appears somewhat flat throughout. The film also has an odd, desaturated color scheme, and I can only assume that this transfer replicates it correctly. It is by no means an attractive look, giving the film the appearance of a TV movie, but apparently it was intentional. Exterior CGI shots look awful, muddy and barely visible.

A DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack does an adequate job, reproducing the train sound effects well and presenting mostly clear voices. It is not reference quality, to be sure, and there is not much directional pull. But then expectations shouldn't be that high to begin with for this film. A 5.1 Dolby Digital track of essentially equal value is also included, along with optional English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles.

A 23-minute making-of featurette heads off the special features, giving us the standard self-congratulatory interviews with cast and crew and a fair amount of behind-the-scenes footage.

A separate section of remarkably uninformative cast and crew interviews follows. This is a mind-boggling collection, with each interview broken up into several short bites of extremely poor visual quality. They appear to have been recorded with low-quality digital cameras. The individual interviews may be accessed individually or through a "Play All" function. For some inexplicable reason, the image freezes and skips terribly when the "Play All" command is used. I'm not sure if this is a glitch on my disc or an actual issue with all of the pressings, but it needs to be pointed out.

A photo gallery and a trailer make up the rest of the features.

Though not without an interesting premise that, in the right hands, could have made for a rather intriguing and suspenseful movie, "Night Train" is little more than bottom-of-the-barrel schlock. M. Brian King announces himself as a filmmaker without a clear sense of direction, belying his own good intentions by producing a bland, run-of-the-mill splatter fest. NEM has given the film a shoddy Blu-ray presentation to match, making this a release best left avoided altogether.