Bradley Cooper as Leon Kauffman
Vinnie Jones as Mahogany
Leslie Bibb as Maya
Brooke Shields as Susan Hoff
Roger Bart as Jurgis
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Midnight Meat Train, when first set to paper by Clive Barker in his late-20s, was a reaction to his confusing and uncomforting first time in Manhattan, notably a subway excursion that propelled him beyond the city limits. The fears that came out of that ordeal inspired one of the most unforgettable and long-cherished entries in Barker's lauded Books of Blood collection, a story of a chance encounter between a New Yorker and a subway-lurking serial killer. Each of them feeding the city in their own ways. MMT is arguably one of Barker's leanest, meanest works, and from the Books of Blood it was always a leading heavyweight contender for the silver screen. Years after trading hands from Bernard Rose (who considered the material for a Candyman sequel) to Patrick Tatopoulos, MMT has been super-injected by the hyper stylings of Ryuhei Kitamura and the assured, bumpy narrative expansion by Jeff Buhler. For the first time since Rose's Candyman (possibly one of the best horror films of the '90s in my opinion), they've done right by the Barker name as MMT is a mature adaptation that pulls no punches and takes no prisoners even if it does tend to meander.
Bradley Cooper is Leon, a photographer living with his supportive girlfriend, Maya (Bibb), a waitress at a nearby diner where the former exercises his dislike for red meat by regularly bringing tofu for the cook to prepare. Leon gets his big chance to woo a local art gallery owner, Susan Hoff (Shields), but when she delivers him some harsh truths about his work, he's forced to go deeper and get grittier before his photos can be deemed worthy to line Hoff's gallery. So, off Leon goes, into the bowels of the city, at first drawn to the subway by following a group of thugs who ultimately harass a young woman Leon saves. The next day, however, said woman is on the front page of the paper, reported "missing." His second jaunt to the subway introduces him to a tall, trim fella named Mahogany (Jones in a non-speaking role) which sets off an obsession in Leon and an eventual suspicion that Mahogany could be responsible for a rash of disappearances throughout the city. This naturally upsets his loving relationship with Maya and propels Leon down a blood-soaked path.
MMT rockets out of the station with something downright furious in its heart - starting off strong and wasting little time plumbing the depths of Leon's dedication to his craft. And Cooper is up to the task, wriggling out of the comedic skin he was growing accustomed to in films like The Wedding Crashers. Buhler constructs an involving story, falling back on the source material for the last third of the film. He parallels Leon's downward spiral with some scenes of outright jaw-dropping commuter assaults involving Mahogany who's always wielding a silver mallet that he puts to expert use over and over and over again. And the results never grow tiring. Hallelujah. Buhler's expansion of Barker's tale comes with growing pains, however, and there's a little fat that could be trimmed mostly involving Leon and Maya's often cryptic interactions. There's also a sense of sympathy for Mahogany, evident in the Barker story, that's lost in translation. Still, Jones is a force to be reckoned with and his performance recalls the old days of cinema where so much expression needs to be read in the eyes and face.
As Kitamura's American debut, MMT cuts to the bone and sets the senses ablaze with eye-popping visuals. The man f**kin' goes to town importing the kinetic mayhem he wrought in Versus and combining it with Jonathan Sela's photography that embraces the sickening fluorescent and neon tints of the subway and the city. If Michael Mann had directed a slasher film somewhere between Thief and The Keep, Midnight Meat Train might have been the outcome - cold, unyielding and driven by a synth '80s score (here, executed deftly by Johannes Kobilke and Robb Williamson).
There are some ballsy, memorable kills on display and Kitamura doesn't skimp on the blood. He also obviously doesn't mind the ambiguity Buhler's script offers in the end (a faithful conclusion) which is so goddamn refreshing in this day and age of exposition making the world go 'round.
Questionable pacing issues aside, Midnight Meat Train is a welcome, adult R-rated horror film. A sobering reminder - hitting you like a slap to the face - that there are still plenty of Barker stories, however bizarre, ripe for adaptation. Midnight Meat Train was one and it may have taken some time to reach its final destination, but the wait was worth it. It's seedy, strange, creepy as hell and it relishes an exploitive gross-out gag here and there. That's a ticket to ride I'd buy any day.