Before flying off the rails in the final curve, “The Midnight Meat Train” rolls quite smoothly as a mid-’80s-style psycho-killer thriller a la “The Hitcher.” Despite ample gore, including a popping eyeball better suited to 3-D, Lionsgate’s modest slasher hews closer in style to its recent “Bug” than to its “Saw” series, and limited release in 100 U.S. theaters strongly suggests distrib doesn’t foresee a potential franchise in this one. Based on a short story by horrormeister Clive Barker, pic stands to scare up its grosses in ancillary.
Unusually literate by contempo slasher standards, “Meat Train” apportions adequate screen time to the relationship struggles of its stressed-out photographer hero, Leon (Bradley Cooper), whose g.f. Maya (Leslie Bibb), a sexy waitress and bookworm, harbors more upwardly mobile ambitions than he. Torn between crime-scene shooting and classier work, Cooper’s tofu-eating Leon is snubbed by an art-gallery snob (Brooke Shields) for making mere “melodrama” with his camera. Thereafter he seeks and finds true horror at a subway station where a distaff model perishes at the hands of pic’s beefy villain (Vinnie Jones) — a meatpacking factory worker known only in the end credits as Mahogany.
Somewhat the Terminator of serial killers, Jones’ heavy plies his trade in emotionless fashion, quietly awaiting victims on 2 a.m. subway rides and dispatching them with meathook and sledgehammer as needed. This suit-and-tie-clad psycho may not appear terribly believable at first, but pic, shot in the seedier parts of Los Angeles, does conjure an authentically menacing urban environment, deploying a cold-blue mise-en-scene and copious street smoke to solid effect. Film manages to make the contempo L.A. look like pre-Giuliani New York, which suits its stylistic throwback to violent thrillers from two decades ago.
Director Ryuhei Kitamura, best known among J-horror fans for his sub-“Evil Dead” genre-bender “Versus,” shows admirable restraint here, accentuated by editor Toby Yates’ extension of shot length to well above average for the modern slasher. A chase scene among swinging beef slabs leaves an aptly cold impression, and lenser Jonathan Sela gives the movie a dingy look, not least in scenes where the killer is glimpsed in a filthy bathroom, storing his own severed flesh in medicine cabinet jars. Film isn’t scary, per se, but it’s mostly effective nonetheless, with Cooper capably steering his character from charming young artist to nervous wreck, evoking Ralph Fiennes’ more unhinged turns along the way.
Faint shades of “Zodiac” appear in the investigative obsession of the vegan hero, who starts scouring century-old newspapers, tacking up photos, ignoring personal hygiene and even sampling rare steak. Alas, the insinuation of Leon’s dark side goes underdeveloped, while Maya’s brisk turn from nagging disapproval to kindred sleuthing simply doesn’t track. That Cooper’s mild-mannered shooter would become a fearless, physically intimidating vengeance-seeker is only somewhat explained by the patently ridiculous last reel, in which the purpose of the slaughterer’s human meat collection is revealed as well.
In keeping with Barker’s source material, Jeff Buhler’s screenplay mostly forgoes humor, although when Shields’ gallery curator beholds an uncommercial frame and sighs, “Not holding my breath on that one — a tad too bleak,” one thinks amusedly of the downbeat pic itself, whose fortunes certainly won’t come in scant theatrical play.