US, Germany, Romania / 91 minutes / color / A-Mark, Rifkin/Eberts, FilmTiger Dir & Scr: M. Brian King Pr: Brian Etting, Wendy Park, Bruce McNall, Steve Markoff, Arnold Rifkin, Christopher Eberts, Michael Philip Cine: Christopher Popp Cast: Danny Glover, Leelee Sobieski, Steve Zahn, Matthias Schweighoefer, Geoff Bell, Constantine Gregory, Richard O’Brien, Takatsuna Mukai, Togo Igawa, Jo Marr.
A highly effective black comedy, done with lashings of CGI (the exteriors seem to be almost entirely CGI; the interiors often seem, especially in the earlier parts of the movie, to be done as CGI-enhanced live action). There are also plenty of hat-tips, via the character names, to earlier noir/crime movies—the names Mr. Gutman and Mr. Cairo obviously referring to The MALTESE FALCON (1941) and Mrs. Froy to The Lady Vanishes (1938)—although besides these hat-tips there aren’t really any further resemblances (except, perhaps, in that the plot role of this movie’s MacGuffin could be compared to that of the Maltese Falcon). Other movie influences might seem to be Hellraiser (1987), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and even, in terms of visual style, The Polar Express (2004).
A movie of great visual style.
Senior guard Miles (Glover; “I know everything about this train except its favorite color”) and his far junior colleague Frankie (Schweighoefer) run a night train called Nightingale. One Christmas Eve, as they pause at a deserted station, a man called (as we later learn) Mr. Cairo (Marr) runs up through the falling snow and begs to be allowed on board. By the time the train is back underway and Miles goes to the rear coach to ask Cairo for his fare, Cairo has died; according to earnest medical student Chloe White (Sobieski) and half-drunk salesman Pete Dobbs (Zahn), the only other two passengers of that car, a contributory cause might have been the miniature of vodka Pete gave the man shortly before his demise.
Rummaging through the dead man’s belongings, the trio find a wooden box shaped roughly like a truncated pyramid, its upper slopes taking the form of a wooden grille. Pressing a button on the side opens the interstices of the grille; through those interstices each observer sees the answer to their dreams—a different answer, as we find: emeralds for Pete, diamonds for Miles, something that loves her for Chloe. The trio decide, each for their different greed (in Miles’s case, because he wants the best hospital care for his dying wife), that they can’t give up the box.
The magic box — Leelee Sobieski, Danny Glover and Steve Zahn.
They decide to dump Cairo’s body into the Sturgeon River, over which the train will soon cross. In hopes of protecting the body from immediate discovery, they decide to purloin a trunk from the baggage compartment. Unfortunately, the biggest empty trunk they can find there is far too small . . . so Chloe, stealing a meat cleaver from the kitchen, announces that “I took an autopsy class last semester” and sets to work . . .
“I took an autopsy class last semester,” says medical student Chloe White (Leelee Sobieski), and starts right in . . .
Back in the rear car, Pete explains his philosophy of life and why he still fancies Chloe, with whom he wouldn’t, you know, mind spending the rest of his life in the Marquesas Islands: “You don’t need to morally justify yourself to me, okay?—I’m in sales, remember? Although I can say I’ve never cut off a man’s head for a commission before.”
There are plenty of twists before the train’s next stop, where boards the enigmatic Mr. Gutman (Gregory), who tells Miles he’s here to meet his friend Mr. Cairo. He tries to take the box from the three conspirators at gunpoint, and tells them that “Anyone who looks inside it will be dead by sunrise—no exceptions” . . . a warning that of course they ignore, because this is one of those dark fairy stories in which people, despite every bit of contrary advice, plunge on determinedly toward their doom. With Gutman murdered as well, the trio are in real trouble.
Worse still, they soon learn, when the train is stopped between stations by the cops, led by Detective Melville (Bell), that the river was frozen, the trunk full of body parts flew open on impact, and an ice fisherman got a nasty surprise. The cops find nothing aboard the train but Melville—a hat-tip to the famous French director of movies like BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1955), Jean-Pierre Melville—decides to stay aboard. He, too, proves to be in search of the box and its infinitely alluring contents . . . as do the few other passengers on the almost deserted Christmas Eve train: Edna Froy (O’Brien) and two seemingly-innocent-bystander Japanese who have been steadfastly playing a game of Go in order to pass the time: Toshiro Yamashita (Igawa) and Hiro Nakata (Mukai). Although their game is Go rather than cricket, we’ve wrongly assumed these two to be the equivalent of Caldicott and Charters in The Lady Vanishes.
There aren’t many—in fact, there aren’t any—left standing at the end, not even Edna Froy’s yappy little dog Poochie. The box survives, of course . . . to be picked up by a small child who, natch, presses the button and sees within the box her heart’s desire: the circle will remain unbroken.
Leelee Sobieski in character.
This is a visually very appealing movie. The CGI externals of the train rushing through the night and the snow might lack photographic realism; for that they exchange a wonderful quasi-Impressionistic excitement, and it’s hard not to believe we haven’t got the better of that particular bargain. This knowingness extends to the characterization: we’re not intended to believe in Chloe and Miles and Pete as actual people; what the movie is telling us to do is welcome these stereotypes (and a stereotyped setting, the enclosed world of the swift-moving train) into a new/old plot. These are characters in whom, as with those in The Lady Vanishes, we’re supposed to believe largely for the joy of suspending our disbelief.
There have been lots of other movies called Night Train, none of which seem to have anything to do with this one: of those, the excellent Polish movie POCIAG (1959; vt Night Train)—of which this is sometimes falsely listed as a remake—is especially recommended.
On Amazon.com: Night Train