Crime photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper) aspires to the loftier arena of art photography. His girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) scores him an interview with influential gallery owner Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), who drives him to delve into seedier areas of the city. Whilst trawling the crime-ridden subway, Leon captures a photograph of a sharp-suited serial killer (Vinnie Jones) who rides the midnight train, brutally despatching unwary commuters then carving and storing their bodies like slabs of meat. Leon’s growing obsession with exposing the mute murderer leads both him and Maya into increasingly dangerous waters until they uncover the grisly truth.
Ryuhei Kitamura won fans worldwide with his zombie action opus Versus (2001) and went on to re-energise Japanese cinema with a hyperkinetic style hitherto more common in Hong Kong film. Based on the acclaimed Clive Barker short story of the same name, The Midnight Meat Train marked Kitamura’s Hollywood debut but wound up going straight to video. Had the film been released after The Hangover (2009) shot Bradley Cooper to stardom it might have had a higher profile, though one suspects its excessive splatter, defiant nihilism and wildly implausible third act would make little impact at the box office. It is worth mentioning the film drew surprisingly good notices, which is odd given Kitamura’s best work (Azumi (2003), Sky High (2003), Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)) is distinguished by an ebullient spirit and infectious energy that does not gel with the morbid melancholy inherent in Barker’s story.
Shooting in steely grey hues that capture the visceral, oppressive nature of the city, Kitamura lays on the style like he lays on the gore: thick and generous but responds to Jeff Buhler’s script crafting lively, well-drawn characters and coaxing strong performances from Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb. The tragic disintegration of their relationship provides the emotional backbone to what is otherwise marred by the usual nihilist-absurdist streak sadly common amongst the most recent spate of J-horror movies. Continuing Japanese filmmakers inexplicable fascination with the charisma vaccum that is Vinnie Jones, this gives the former footballer another chance to indulge his tough guy fantasies as the inexplicably omniscient, unstoppable killer. It is testament to Kitamura’s underrated skill with actors that Jones emerges a fairly menacing presence, with his dialogue wisely pared down to a single line. The splatter scenes are deeply unpleasant with teeth, toenails, eyeballs and tumors yanked out in gruesome closeup which will no doubt please gore fans, though the film is arguably more effective when focused on mood.
However, the film is fatally hobbled by muddled, frankly bizarre thematic undertones implying art exploits human misery and that exposure to violence invariably makes people violent. Aren’t these the sort of accusations commonly levelled at horror movies? Stranger still, the film seems intent to confirm a vegan’s worst suspicion that the meat trade is full of closet maniacs, drawing a faintly patronising parallel between meat consumption and murder that would no doubt do Morrissey proud. After crafting a just about plausible murder-mystery, Buhler uses an array of illogical and vague contrivances to get characters onto the train for the final confrontation, whereupon the film leaps into C.H.U.D. (1984) territory with a ridiculous conspiracy involving New York’s meat packing industry, metropolitan train service and police department. Others may disagree but, for this Kitamura fan, The Midnight Meat Train emerges his weakest, least satisfying movie to date.
Talented, prolific Japanese director heavily influenced by 80s horror and action movies, Kitamura makes films in a hyper-kinetic style that favours visceral excitement over tight plotting and character development. His samurai/zombie/yakuza debut Versus was a big festival hit, while subsequent films like Alive, Sky High and the period swashbuckler Azumi provide similar thrills. In 2004 directed the 28th film in the Godzilla series - Godzilla: Final Wars - then the neglected Clive Barker adaptation Midnight Meat Train, with Versus 2 long promised.