Leelee Sobieski, Danny Glover, Steve Zahn
2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
When I was a teenager, there was a rot gut wine called Night Train that was a guaranteed hangover producer. It was one of the cheapest highs you could buy. You might need a case of it to get through this train wreck that purports itself to be a thriller. When "Night Train" leaves the station it's a creative cinematic cruise, but by the time it reaches its destination, it's a train in vain.
On a snowy night, Mr. Cairo, a pill-popping stranger (co-producer Jo Marr) carrying a mysterious wooden box catches a train. One of the passengers, slick, alcohol-addled salesman Peter Dobbs (a self-aggrandizing Steve Zhan) gives the stranger a small bottle of vodka which he promptly uses to wash down another handful of pills ("Whatever blows your hair back man," Pete comments) The stranger has a heart attack and dies, leaving the box unattended. Peter looks inside the box and sees a stash of valuable jewels. He and Chloe, a medical student (you'll say yay yay for Leelee Sobieski), convince Miles (proud but punch less Danny Glover) not to report the stranger's death so they can split the profits between the three of them.
Chloe: I bet you guys think I'm a lunatic for what I did back there.
Pete: Ah, who hasn't sliced and diced a corpse from time to time?
Chloe: Miles would have reported him to the police if I hadn't done it.
Pete: Look, you don't need to morally justify yourself to me. I'm a salesman, remember?
It becomes apparent that anyone who looks inside the box sees something different; that each of the three conspirators sees what their heart desires. The box plays to the characters sense of greed, forcing them to do anything to covet it, no matter how illogical or unspeakable the deed.
Disposing of the stranger's body is only the beginning of the trio's trials and tribulations. The trunk containing the stranger's butchered remains lands near some ice fisherman, who report being bombarded by falling body parts to the police. The police stop the train to question Miles and the passengers. Another stranger, Mr. Guttman (Constantine Gregory), boards the train intent in destroying the box. As the police and the other passengers get involved in the battle to possess the box, the bodies start piling up like wrecked toy trains in Gomez Adams' basement.
"Night Train's" initial plot is interesting. Will the trio of strangers avoid detection, figure out how to open up the box and split a fortune, or will their split one another's skulls first? The first third of "Night Train" is rife with black humor that would lead you to believe the picture is a send up of murder mysteries like "Murder on the Orient Express." (Indeed, Guttman is a tip of the hat to Sydney Greenstreet's character of the same name in "The Maltese Falcon." His partner, played by Peter Lorre was Mr. Cairo.) Watching the desperate trio wheel the stranger's body through the hallway like the corpse in "Weekend at Bernie's" is one of the film's more amusing highlights. And you can't help but notice that the "actress" portraying dog-loving dowager Mrs. Froy (Richard O'Brien, creator and star of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"), is really a man. The question is, why's he dressed up like Toostie? The plot begins to derail when Chloe falls deeply under the thrall of the box and turns into the Terminator, transforming "Night Train" into a Roger Corman horror movie version of "Ten Little Indians." Sobieski's character becomes more interesting, more of a villainous adversary for Miles and Pete, but it's at the expense of the rest of the plot. Chloe proves hard to kill, but the other passengers tickets get punched rather easily. It's like writer Brian King said to himself, "Okay, I've come up with some interesting characters. How many silly ways can I kill them?"
The outdoor special effects are cartoonish, almost as amateurish as "The Polar Bear Express," that Tom Hanks Christmas train movie in which he supplied the voice for the creepy conductor a few years back. The snow drifts look like mounds of Domino Sugar, and when the unfortunate Mr. Cairo gets tossed from the train, his flight path resembles an Acme anvil in a Warner Brothers cartoon that's about to flatten Wyle E. Coyote. Yes, passengers, the outside scenery looks like the actors are playing out their roles inside a snow globe. It's a shame, because the inside of the train was flawlessly recreated down to its claustrophobic upper berths.
I haven't seen much of Leelee Sobieski, but I'd like to. Yes, she really does look like Helen Hunt's younger sister, but Leelee's also got an Amazon queen's physique and piercing green eyes that can transmit a commanding 1,000 yard stare to die for. Can she act? Well, a little bit. Her role calls for her to go from being a bookish dweeb to a psychotic cyborg -- not an easy task, and its plain she relished running around like an indestructible Wonder Woman more than acting like a fawning librarian. Dressed in a wool cap and glasses, Leelee didn't convince me she was a shy medical student. But when she shed her school marm props and started barking orders, stabbing and slashing with methodical ease, her creased stare made me believe in her newfound confidence. I was tempted to bow before my screen prostrate myself and say, "Yes, mistress."
Danny Glover gets top billing as Miles, the conductor, who sees the box as a way to pay for his wife's expensive medical care. We've come a long way baby...Forty years ago Glover would have been a porter and wouldn't have been listed in the cast. Too bad there's still too much Stepin' Fetchit in his lethargic, mumbling performance. You're an actor, Danny, not a tab of Sominex. Glover's Miles has a moral center that bends but doesn't break under the influence of "the box" and that's good, but Danny shuffles through his scenes like he's been run over by an express train, and that's bad.
Thanks to his fateful infatuation with Chloe, Steve Zahn's sleazy salesman Pete Dobbs develops a redeeming conscience. Zahn, excellent in "Happy, Texas" gets to pop a few zingers while the movie hits its apex as a dark comedy ("I guess this is the downside of working with strangers...The possibility that one of the turns out to be psychotic."). I was surprised the writer's built Pete up from an alcoholic me-first sleaze to someone who displays moments of sensitivity toward his new partners - only to write him out of the action faster than Ritchie Cunningham's brother.
Back in the day, "Night Train" might have qualified as an interesting episode of "Twilight Zone." The absurd express train ending sets it on a course to crash and burn. Still, it's worth climbing on board just to tout your whistle at Leelee Sobieski's Teutonic talent.