July 13, 2009

Night Train

Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***

A throwback to earlier days, styles, plot devices and modes of transportation, Night Train just manages to provide a good time both despite and because of its adherence to old-fashioned formula. From the beginning -- as two train conductors (Danny Glover and Matthias Schweighoefer) debark from adjoining cars at the same moment – writer/director Brian King provides a nostalgic and rather appealing “look” to his film. Despite a budget that I suspect was on the small side, King maintains a consistent style and enough suspense to the proceedings to keep us, if not on tenterhooks, at least willing to go along for the ride. The movie was shot in Bulgaria. Everything from costumes to sets looks attractive but slightly strange, which befits the film’s odd “nowhere” location. While the station-names the conductor uses all sound North American, clearly, that’s not our territory.

Where we are is on a train, speeding through the night, filled with only a handful of passengers (that budget again) but the few on view are bizarre enough to turn your head. Leelee Sobieski (a med student, cramming for exams), Steve Zahn (a failed traveling salesman), an uptight Britisher (Richard O’Brien) with a little dog, two Japanese tourists (Takatsuna Mukai and Togo Igawa) -- and a final character (played by an actor with a memorable visage, Luca Bercovici) racing either from someone or against time to catch the train. We soon find ourselves with one dead body, a mysterious (and apparently quite valuable) little box, followed by greed, betrayal, severed limbs (one particularly grisly but funny scene) -- and the supernatural.

While Night Train offers nothing remotely new, King provides enough style, suspense, surprise and a short running time to bring things off – if not with a bang, at least without a whimper. Sobieski and Zahn have fun with their roles, while Glover provides what weight and moral balance there is. German actor Schweighoefer possesses blond locks and a near-angelic face that contrasts nicely with one of his later scenes; the Japanese are properly inscrutable; and Mr. O’Brien (Yes: Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show!) brings home the showiest, most bizarre role with humor and class.

I bounced back and forth between 2½ and 3 stars for this odd but appealing time-waster, finally opting for the higher rating out of appreciation of what can still be accomplished with a speeding train, a captive crowd, and a little style and color. Oh, yes: and the film’s final, interesting question: What might the character that ends up with that box actually see inside it?

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Posted by cphillips at July 13, 2009 12:02 PM
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