Writer-director M. Brian King’s Night Train is a peculiar film. It’s a modern-day suspense thriller in which blood-splattered corpses pile up quickly, but it explicitly references 20th-century classics like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. It’s set on a sparsely populated passenger train that’s set to be decommissioned since rail travel ain’t what it used to be, but it employs up-to-the-minute digital effects for all the exterior shots of the train. And though it worships at the altar of 1940s film noir, it’s strangely overlit, possibly because Night Train was designed to go straight to video and iPods and other small-screen destinations where dark shadows aren’t much appreciated. The push-pull of past and present gives the film a kick, but its story offers no surprises, making you wonder if King’s vision was diluted along the way by the film’s 15 producers.
In Night Train Danny Glover plays a conductor named Miles (if he was an airline pilot, would his name be Miles High?), who lets a sickly passenger with no ticket board his train on Christmas Eve. The passenger (played by Jo Marr, one of the producers) retreats to the rear car, occupied by Chloe (Leelee Sobieski), a premed student, and Pete (Steve Zahn), a traveling salesman, and proceeds to take his life with an overdose of Seconal and vodka.
In his possession is a wooden box with a metal grate on the front. Miles, Chloe, and Pete all look inside and discover a fortune worth millions. Since the dead man had no ticket, there’s no way anyone can prove he was ever on the train, right? After a brief battle with his conscience, Miles decides to conspire with the two strangers on his train and dispose of the body. Of course, that’s when the trouble begins.
The box has supernatural powers and becomes its own character in the film (let’s call her Pandora), unlike the train, which never looks lived-in or even real due to cinematographer Christopher Popp’s megawatt lighting design — you’re always conscious the actors are on a flimsy set. Plus, the CGI that’s used for exterior shots comes dangerously close to looking like test footage from The Polar Express, but since Hitchcock loved using “process” shots for driving scenes that made it clear his actors weren’t behind the wheel of a moving car, it’s worth giving King the benefit of the doubt about the obvious fakery and not just blame it on Night Train‘s smallish budget.
Only Sobieski is given a character with more than two dimensions, but Chloe turns out to be a run-of-the-mill horror-thriller “bad girl” — too weak and greedy to resist the box’s promised riches, too evil not to kill whoever stands in her way. (Like the film’s train, the Nightingale, Sobieski’s career, not to mention Glover’s and Zahn’s, has seen better days.) The rest of the small cast is dominated by men of various nationalities with various accents, adding spatial disorientation to the film’s temporal fog.
Everyone who looks inside the dead passenger’s wooden box sees what they want, but with Night Train you end up wanting more from what you’re seeing: unexpected twists, wittier dialogue, dimmer lightbulbs, etc. You’ll never be bored on this journey, but it’s not the kind that creates lasting memories.
Night Train is rated R and available through Netflix. The disc’s special features include “Night Train: The Making Of.”