“Please, step away from the meat.”
Before THE HANGOVER made him a marquee name, and before he was nominated for Oscars three years in a row, Bradley Cooper was the star of THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008). Sure, he’d already been in WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER and WEDDING CRASHERS and some TV shows, like he was on Alias and he played “Jack Bourdain” in Darren Star’s short-lived TV version of Kitchen Confidential. But come on. Obviously nobody cares about that shit and I’m embarrassed that I just typed it. He was, and is, the star of THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN.
Loosely based on a Clive Barker short story, this is a tale of city life. It’s about fears of late night public transit, of deserted subway platforms and cars, and our curiosity about the other odd people who are out late. The model in the fur coat, the teens selling candy bars at 2 am, most of all the dour, weathered bruiser in the suit and tie (Vinnie Jones, GARFIELD: A TAIL OF TWO KITTIES), always hunched over clutching his bag and looking miserable.
Leon (Bradley Cooper, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) sees the guy and becomes obsessed with him. He follows him GHOST WORLD style, researches him, photographs him, dreams about him. Leon helps a lady escape from rapists, she goes missing that night, and he decides the man with the bag is involved. The more he investigates the creepier and crazier the whole thing seems. And he has a dream where he sees his own head on the guy’s body and it slits his throat and he sees his face reflected in the puddle of blood. You know, that old dream.
It should be mentioned that Leon is an artist, a painter turned photographer going down this path not only out of morbid fascination, but out of desperation to impress a big shot gallery curator (Brooke Shields, BRENDA STARR) and escape the drudgery of… well, taking freelance pictures of dead bodies. NIGHTCRAWLER shit. He’s dipping into the darkness to escape the darkness. You know what, come to think of it I feel like maybe he likes this stuff.
It should also be mentioned that this guy he’s following actually is a murderer. We see it long before Leon does. Late at night he rides the subway and when he’s alone with somebody he pulls a huge metal mallet out of that bag and pounds them to death. Or he slashes them with machetes or with his meat hook. He’s strong, so he can hook a guy in the chest and then lift him up with one arm and slam him against the ceiling. Since this is directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (VERSUS, GODZILLA FINAL WARS) the killings are shown to us in increasingly extravagant gore showcases. Blood pours like waterfalls, eyeballs are knocked out of sockets. The victims succumb to a nightmarish helplessness. They slip on blood puddles or loose eyeballs, fall backwards and slam their heads on the floor. They try to crawl away but slip and slide in the grue like greased pigs, it gets all over them, causing even more panic.
Kitamura’s show-offy camera gimmicks – not only, but especially, in the death scenes – give this gloomy story an enjoyable energy. There’s a bunch of them: the closeup of Leon’s face as he wakes up, it looks like he’s on his back until it pulls back and spins around to reveal that he’s hanging upside down. Or the scene where the camera keeps rotating around a moving subway car, looking through the windows at the characters fighting. But I’d have to say the showstopper is the woman’s POV of her bloody hands failing to grip the floor as she’s dragged across it. The shot continues as you get hammered. Your vision goes blurry, your hearing goes wonky, you begin to wobble. Then he cuts your head off and it goes flying. You still have a few conscious moments to tumble to the floor and watch another spurt of blood from the stump of your headless body sprawled on the other side of the car. Then the camera pulls out of her dead eye, the killer and his hammer reflected on it, and shows the head laying there.
I mean, you gotta applaud that shot. Or you would’ve had to, except when Lionsgate released this on 100 second run screens it was an R-rated version with that whole scene cut out. That’s crazy. I mean I get it, it’s very graphic, it’s the kind of thing that gets censored. But how upsetting must it be to make a shot that elaborate and not even be able to use it? I mean, that’s the whole point of the movie.
Kitamura is as fascinated with Jones’s face as Leon is. He doesn’t talk, he just frowns and broods and minds his own business until it’s time to do his job. Or until Cooper’s future A-Teammate Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (who was famous in Japan pre-UFC because he fought in Pride for a long time) comes on the subway and pisses him off. I think he’s supposed to be a Guardian Angel, but he’s also a bully, trying to scare him and then he makes a pretty good point:
Ha ha, that was straight out of a Comedy Central Roast. Anyway, they get to have a gory fight scene, which I approve of. Rampage grabs him and tries to make a citizen’s arrest.
The deeper Leon’s interest the more crazed he gets. His girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb, LAW ABIDING CITIZEN) is very supportive so you feel bad for her when she comes home from work one day and the motherfucker has turned the whole apartment into Weird-Guy-I-Saw-On-the-Subway Investigation Headquarters, with photos and maps all over the walls, and he’s waving his arms around frantically trying to explain this nonsense to her. She just wanted to discuss what they were gonna have for dinner, I’m sure.
And his personality starts changing, or he starts getting in touch with his animalistic side or something. He goes from bringing his own tofu to the diner everyday to ordering a steak. He has rough doggystyle sex with Maya. He was probly more gentle and loving before all this subway business. (Also there is a definite gay subtext to this, as Barker explains on the commentary track.)
Nobody believes Leon, but he knows this guy is for real. He follows him off the subway and finds out he works at a meat factory. He stalks him through a jungle of hanging beef, has to climb up one of them to hide, gets chased by him.
The butcher’s story gets weirder as we find out more information. We see a private moment between him and his bathroom mirror. Turns out his chest is covered in huge, disgusting bumps, which he slices off with a knife. Then he pulls out a jar, you know, maybe some kind of salve or som– oh, no, actually he puts the lesions he cut off into the jar. He keeps them. That’s pretty gross. Oh, and then we see that he has shelves full of these jars. Then he downs a bunch of pills. He’s pathetic. Should we kinda feel sorry for this guy? I don’t know.
And by the way, what’s this in the medicine cabinet between the pills and the tumors? I thought it was a salt shaker at first, but maybe it’s cologne? Yeah, I bet this guy smells pretty good.
There’s a great reveal where (SPOILER) he can’t handle one of his victims so the train conductor steps in to finish the job through the medium of maybe the most spectacular digital head shot every created. He says “I’m very disappointed in you, Mahogany. Now clean up the mess.” I don’t know why, but that seemed like the craziest part to me, that the guy is named Mahogany.
The feel is pretty different from other Clive Barker movies, it seems more grounded, less fantastic. But it gradually gets more over-the-top. Eventually we find out Mahogany is taking these people he kills, pulling out their teeth, fingernails and eyeballs, putting them in tupperware. Then he hangs the bodies up in the subway hand railing. I’m happy to say there’s a scene where Leon and Mahogany have a knife fight on a speeding subway surrounded by upside down naked hanging corpses and their errant swings and stabs keep chopping into the meat.
That’s actually one of the more pleasant ones. A less pleasant one is when Mahagony chops right between some poor dead guy’s legs into the butthole and balls type area.
There’s a whole conspiratorial angle to it and an ultimate explanation of where the meat goes which is pure Clive Barker, and I admire them for keeping that instead of trying to make it more normal. And I mean who knows, maybe that shit does go on if you take the wrong subway. Luckily they have apps now to make public transit easier.
I saw this movie when it first came out on video and I always thought it was pretty good. It seems like longer ago than the 7 or 8 years it’s been, but that’s a good period of time to use it as my go-to title in parentheses for any new Bradley Cooper review. What surprised me most about watching it again is that he gives a pretty good performance in it. He arguably overdoes some of the manic parts, but there are a bunch of impressive acting moments. One is when he sees an attempted rape in the subway station, right before all this happens. He’s a weirdo so his instinct is to just stand there and keep taking pictures, but the victim looks at him and he feels guilty so he intervenes. He yells at the guys and faces them down, taking their pictures and tricking them into stepping into a clear view of a surveillance camera. He’s talking tough but you can see his hand is a little shaky, he’s breathing pretty hard, he has to work at it. His heart is probly pounding like crazy, but he knows he has to stand up to this guy, so he does, and keeps cool as much as possible.
Another one is when Maya gets fed up with his obsession and tearfully begs him to find happier subject matter. “Just shoot what makes you happy!” she says. “What makes you happy? What do you love?”
He looks like he’s been caught. “You,” he says. “I love you!” His smile is unconvincing. He starts to take pictures of her and she starts undressing for him, but he keeps seeing flashes of meat and Mahogany and shit. He starts crying. He doesn’t want to admit that documenting subway rapers and serial killers is what he really loves.
Since this was my first impression of Cooper I’m not sure why it surprised me later on when it became clear he could act. He’d always been pretty good. But he’s such a pretty boy I guess I just had a prejudice and underestimated him. Brad Pitt syndrome. In this movie there’s a scene where their friend Jurgis (Roger Bart from HOSTEL: PART II) tells him that thing that people tell each other in one out of every two movies:
But tell me, does he look like he looks like shit to you? He maybe has a little stubble, and very minor bedhead, but he looks better than most of us in my opinion. That’s one thing he wasn’t good enough to pull off back then, was looking like shit. Now that he’s more experienced he can look like shit in his sleep with one hand tied behind his back.
Weirdly it does kind of have parallels to AMERICAN SNIPER. He has a woman who loves him and tries to take care of him but as this world of death consumes his life more and more he’s not around, he’s distant, he scares her, he’s not himself, but he doesn’t see it. In my opinion there could be no Academy Award nominee for Best Picture AMERICAN SNIPER if there was no MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. But there is a MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. There always will be.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.