Night Train is a direct-to-video release starring the able cast of Danny Glover, Steve Zahn, and Leelee Sobieski. Although it involves the not unfamiliar plot of death while captive on a train, it does introduce a supernatural element into the mix which helps fuel this mystery thriller.
A train conductor (Glover) is on duty during a late night trip before the Christmas holidays. The train is nearly empty, with just a few passengers spread throughout the cars. Right before departure, a man rushes to catch the train, unable to speak from the cold, and carrying a package. While seated in the rear car with a drunken salesman (Zahn) and a medical student returning home for the holidays (Sobieski), the mysterious man silently dies. The two other passengers and the conductor, unsure what to do about the deceased, uncover the package he was carrying, and when their curiosity gets the best of them, open it. What they see inside begins to fuel a destructive greed that could doom them all.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the story is well formed as an idea, but isn't as fleshed out as it could have been. The idea of greed run amok is given a noble slant, with a Pandora's Box twist to keep things interesting. While the acting is generally strong, the characters are not well developed and are often given sloppy expository dialogue to deliver. The strength of the casting is that all seem to do well in this limited setting of a moving train, which is secluded enough that it almost feels more like a stage play – with its small cast of characters and revolving set – than a more grand theatrical setting.
The pace of the film is generally good, and keeps the suspense of the story moving briskly. But it can't make up for some of the holes in the plot and flimsy motivation from the characters. It also doesn't help that the end of the film is, for the most part, very predictable. You're basically waiting for the grand unraveling, and the finish isn't wholly satisfying. Although entertaining, it feels like a missed opportunity. This is a very capable cast, and the start of a good idea, but is undone in the end by a rushed plot and faulty script.
The video presentation for Night Train feels about as solid as the story execution, unfortunately. One problem is that the HD video look (as in "not film") suffers from contrast issues and poor color definition. It doesn't help that they seemed to try to compensate for this with a set made of Christmas tree lights, and a hazy lack of clarity, perhaps to balance out the sometimes stark edges of video. Secondly, the CGI – both the rendered outside train shots and the digitally inserted snow – looks… well, like quick CGI. This isn't a technical marvel, to be sure.
The audio track is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, but you might not guess it in a blind test. The character voices are inconsistent level-wise, and seem to have taken a back seat to the rest of the track. The score for the film is quite nice, but doesn't do much to take advantage of rear channels, and sound effects often needlessly overpower the rest of the track. By and large, the audio is not terrible especially by low-budget film standards, but one always hopes for more.
Extras for this disc are thin, but standard. First up is the "'Making Of' Featurette" (SD, 22:55) which yes, is actually called "Making Of." Aside from the typical fluff interviews with cast and crew, smaller budget productions tend to be more interesting when it comes to the nuts and bolts of pulling everything off on a tight schedule. And this featurette gives a decent glimpse into lean movie making, from the limited set to mixing in effects with live action. The other main feature is a collection of raw interview footage of the cast and crew (SD, 28:13). It's basically unwatchable, as it is nothing more than minuscule, random clips of interviews, the source footage for the editor to use later. If nothing else, it gives you a better appreciation for what an editor has to sort through to put together the featurette, for example. A photo gallery and trailer are also included.
Night Train is a decent film, and could be much worse. It's just unfortunate that it feels closer to something that could have been much better. I'm sure that low-budget independent films are under loads of time and monetary constraints as it is, but the result befits the lack of thorough development seen elsewhere. As a sloppy Hitchcock film, Night Train may well be worth a rental for fans of the genre, but falls short as something deserving of a purchase.