MIDNIGHT EXPRESS - Blu-ray review

A solid prison film that feels so real that if you heard a voiceover you'd swear it was a documentary.

James Plath's picture

"Midnight Express" is anathema in one respect, and pure Hollywood in another.

On the one hand, it presents a "hero" who's as anti as they come. "Midnight Express" is the story of a young American sentenced to four and a half years in a Turkish prison for being a dumb ass. His crime, other than stupidity, is that while traveling with his girlfriend in Istanbul he decided to strap about 20 bricks of hashish--the concentrated resin of the cannabis plant, a.k.a. marijuana--to his skinny little frame. In 1970, which is when this story begins, you could get a substantial bag of marijuana for a "nickel" (five bucks), but a "rock" of hash the size of a marble was much harder to come by and priced to match. So when Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) tries to leave Turkey with enough hash to get half of Los Angeles loaded, he's obviously not just looking for a new personal high. This guy is hoping to finance his college education plus grad school and a return trip to Istanbul. When he's caught at the airport because he sweats like a guy on a first date and we hear what he hears in his head--a little Edgar Allan Poe telltale heart action, ka-thump, ka-thump--he looks so guilty that even a meter maid would have whistled for back-up. He deserves to get busted, as far as I'm concerned, and as far as Hollywood is concerned, unsympathetic heroes can be risky business.

But Hollywood (and their audiences) do have certain fascinations--among them Nazis, hookers, dinosaurs, and prisons. So it really doesn't matter if Billy Hayes pulled a bonehead play and landed in a Turkish prison. Americans want to see what it's like inside a Turkish prison, and "Midnight Express" became a runaway commercial success. It also received six Oscar nominations--including Best Picture--and won for Best Music (Giorgio Moroder, who also won Oscars for "Top Gun" and "Flashdance") and Best Screenplay (Oliver Stone--yes, the Oliver Stone).

"Midnight Express" may not be as strong as "Papillon," "The Green Mile," "The Shawshank Redemption," or even an oldie-but-goodie prison flick like "Birdman of Alcatraz," but Stone avoids his usual self-indulgent excess and delivers a screenplay that feels so understated and fact-based that a voiceover narration would convince you it was a documentary. All that's helped by Alan Parker's fly-on-the-wall approach, and his direction is far less heavy-handed than we saw from him in "Angel Heart." The raw, you-are-there feel of "Midnight Express" comes closer to what we got from Parker in "The Commitments."

While we're inside the prison, the usual prison things happen. Some prisoners bond, others threaten or antagonize. Guards brutalize, even torture. Bribes exchange hands. Heads turn the other way. A snitch rats people out. And, of course, there's the usual quota of prison film homosexuality, which in "Midnight Express" is like cholesterol--some good, and some bad. Stone and Parker are conscious of the clichés--which nonetheless happen to be true--and we get self-aware moments to acknowledge them, as when überhippie Max (John Hurt), who's been in this particular Turkish prison the longest, reacts to an escape plan by reminding them that "this isn't Stalag 17." But like the typical prisoner-of-war film, which we'll call a subset of prison films, there's the obligatory escape attempts.

If "Midnight Express" were a baseball pitch, it would be a fastball right down the middle--nothing fancy, no corkscrew twists or big curves, just a straight-at-you pitch. That's the constraint of basing a film on a true story. One scene is bizarrely memorable and there's some invention here, as when the most hated Turkish guard (who has two porky little sons that he dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroys) gets his due in a way that's different from the version in Hayes' book, but there isn't the same degree of variation or complexity that we get in some of the better prison movies that I've already mentioned. "Midnight Express" is a solid entry in the prison film genre, but it doesn't make my top five. It might squeeze into my top ten, though.

Despite the familiar plot, there are some excellent performances, including (are you ready for this?) one by a very young and skinny Randy Quaid as fellow prisoner Jimmy Booth, who manages to be funny yet earnest and unpredictable. Davis is also quite good as Billy, while Norbert Weisser is just as believable as Erich, Bo Hopkins does a decent job as Tex, and the extras that Parker enlists to play the guards even do a fine job. Some of the exteriors were shot in Istanbul and Greece, but the bulk of the film was made on the isle of Malta over the course of a grueling 53 days. It was an ordeal for both cast and crew, with some very difficult scenes adding to everyone's frayed edges. The result, though, is a highly believable saga that is interestingly staged and shot by cinematographer Michael Seresin. But it's the Oscar-nominated editing by Gerry Hambling that keeps "Midnight Express" tonally on-track. It's not heavy-handed, either, with juxtapositions that are as artsy as they are interesting. It's an art to edit a picture like this to create interest in the visuals without drawing attention to the shots, but Seresin and Hambling get the job done.

The Turkish government objected to the portrayal of Turks and Turkey in this film, and "Midnight Express" was banned until 1992. I'm not surprised. There isn't a single positively portrayed Turk in 121 minutes, and that's one of the film's weaknesses. The courtroom stuff alone would be enough to make a Turkish judge cry foul. But it is surprising that the real Billy Hayes apologized to the Turkish government and people, and can now return to that country without fear of being arrested again--unless, of course . . . .

"Midnight Express" is rated R for violence, nudity, and sexual situations.

This 1978 catalog title looks so good in Blu-ray that I at first thought it was a skinny Randy Quaid look-alike instead of ol' Randy himself. There's only the slightest amount of grain throughout, and though it's a murky film it's a result of the lighting rather than a deficiency in the filming or transfer. The palette is composed mostly of browns, greys, dusky clays, dingy whites, and shadowy blacks, and fleshtones reflect the lighting conditions. In close-ups and brighter scenes you can see a nice amount of detail, but there isn't much of a 3-D effect. "Midnight Express" comes to a 50GB disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and it's presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As I said, though, for a film that's 30 years old this looks really good.

Purists may opt for the original English mono, but the featured HD soundtrack is an English, French, or Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1. It's decent enough, but by no means as dynamic as some of the newer releases. There's plenty of ambient sound, but the bass doesn't rumble and the high notes could have a brighter timbre. It's a clean lossless track, though, with no distortion or feedback. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and there's an additional audio option in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1.

The bonus features are pretty talky, but fans of the film should be satisfied with the package--especially since the Blu-ray of "Midnight Express" comes in one of Sony's videobooks, those handsome-looking glossy hardcover volumes that feature a full-color 32-page perfect-bound booklet with the disc housed on the inside back cover on a plastic grabber. These little books are so attractive that I could see people giving movies a chance that they might not buy otherwise just to build their videobook collections. (On a selfish note, I hope "The Commitments" also gets this kind of treatment.)

In addition to an above-average commentary track from Parker which covers all the usual bases from script through post-production, there are three 1080i making-of features that each runs just under half an hour. "The Producers" is as it sounds, a discussion with executive producer Peter Guber and producers Alan Marshall and David Puttnam talking about how they became involved with the film and their take on it. They're remarkably low-key and self-deprecating, but they also talk about the life the film has had since they made it. "The Production" features the same trio but with Stone and Hurt added, and a real bonus, the real Billy Hayes. Again, I'd say it's a better-than-average feature, though they cover the usual bases. The third 1080i feature is "The Finished Film," which features the producers with Stone who talk more about the response to the film. There's some overlapping here, but and it's probably the weakest of the bunch. Though it only runs seven minutes, fans will really enjoy an original making-of clip that includes interviews with Billy Hayes and his father. Rounding out the bonus features is a Hi-Def photo gallery that includes a substantial amount of images. And, of course, "Midnight Express" is BD-Live enabled.

As for the 32-page booklet, we get a long essay on "The Making of 'Midnight Express'" by Parker, with color photos, Parker's sketches, and pull-out quotes (one of them from Guber, who remarks, "The whole budget of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS was the catering bill of most films today"). Again, there's some overlapping with the video features, but it's nice to have on paper. Some of the most interesting stuff comes from his discussion of the difficulties of filming on an island, and points of contention in the filming process, including disagreements over scenes to be shot.

Bottom Line:
"Midnight Express" is a solid prison film that feels so real that if you heard a voiceover you'd swear it was a documentary. Parker manages to capture not just the atmosphere but the right tone as well, and the film manages to surprise in the face of its familiarities.


Film Value