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Frank's Movie Log

My life at the movies.

The Midnight Meat Train

2008 | United StatesUnited Kingdom | 100 min | More...
A still from The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
D: 2 stars (out of 5)
on Sat Apr 27, 2024

Sometimes, frustrating films are worse than bad ones. Such is the case with The Midnight Meat Train.

Despite the studio dumping it straight to second run theaters1, it’s not a disaster. This move had more to do with studio politics than the film’s quality.

Indeed, there’s a lot to like. Bradley Cooper plays a photographer obsessed with capturing the city’s underbelly. A late-night shoot puts him on the trail of a serial killer—played by Vinnie Jones—who pulverizes subway riders with a slaughterhouse meat tenderizer. Director Ryuhei Kitamura tinges the train sequences with a fluorescent-blue hue that matches Jones’s icy demeanor, providing an amusing contrast to the stylized, over-the-top violence that includes an eyeball popping out of its socket and hurtling toward the camera.

But, despite Barker’s involvement, the script makes the same mistake as other failed Barker adaptations, such as Rawhead Rex: it loses the subtext. In Barker’s story, the protagonist was a bored office worker who’d grown disillusioned with New York City. The narrative cut between this officer worker and the serial killer, painting both men as menial laborors in service of an inhuman entity. Barker’s transgressive genius emerges via a streak of black humor, suggesting the killer’s work is more rewarding. He works with his hands and provides a needed service. He murders, but so does a slaughterhouse. The story’s resonance comes from Barker’s implicit analogy, painting corporate America as a slaughterhouse of the soul feeding the inhuman shareholders.

This script lacks any such insinuation, rendering it a contrived thriller. There’s no deeper resonance, and the script’s attempts to fill this gap prove laughable. When a lecherous gallery owner—played by Brooke Shields, who shines in a throwaway role—asks Cooper what interests him, Cooper replies, “The city … Because no one’s ever captured it. Not the way it really is … the heart of it.” Credit to both performers that they delivered this dialog with straight faces.

This adaptation also shoehorns in a lot of cruft. Cooper’s a vegetarian who has his local greasy-spoon make him vegan cheesesteaks with tofu he brings himself in little Tupperware containers. He’s got a girlfriend who exists to raise the third-act narrative stakes, and an agent to deliver exposition. Neither of these characters existed in the source material, where the loneliness and isolation of New York City contributed to its dehumanizing effect.

Speaking of New York, that setting became a budget casualty. Instead, the film unfolds in an unnamed city that looks a lot like Los Angeles2.

Despite these unfortunate changes, Cooper and Jones could have salvaged the film. Cooper’s star-level charisma glosses over his underwritten part. Jones’ near-silent performance as a quiet, suit-clad commuter exuding coiled rage and menace shines as the film’s highlight. But the CGI effects prove too much. The ample blood and gore in Jones’ deadpan murders look animated, pulling you out of the scene, and robbing it of any visceral thrills. Worst of all, it looks cheap, like an afterthought instead of a focus.

A frustrating endeavor. The changes to the source material reek of studio notes. The CGI and transplanted setting, of budget restrictions. It needn’t have been this way. The principals could have pivoted to an original story. One that afforded the supporting cast better written parts. One with fewer sets to free up budget for practical effects. And one with an ending that felt earned instead of just shocking.

If you’ve read Barker’s short story, this adaptation will disappoint. If you haven’t, I encourage you to watch this first. You’ll enjoy it more that way. Then enjoy Barker’s story and imagine what could have been.

  1. I caught its one-night-only run on Halloween at Landmark E Street Cinema.
  2. At least this explains how Cooper’s glamorous girlfriend—played by Leslie Bibb—would be working in a diner.

Viewing History

    Watched on
    Sat Apr 27, 2024 (Unrated Director's Cut)at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema - One Loudoun (Railway to Hell Mystery Marathon)