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By Merle Bertrand | October 11, 1999

The south of the border city of Tijuana has become legendary for its sleaze and debauchery. I’m just irritated that I’ve never been there. I feel as I’m missing out. Still, judging from what I’ve heard, if I ever get to Tijuana and a veteran denizen like Sam (Barry Cutler) urges me to get out because it’s too dangerous, I’d go. A skinny, grizzled wino who sounds like Fish from the old “Barney Miller” show, Sam befriends Joe Butcher (John Voldstad), a slovenly American crook drawn to the city by a telegram from his brother. When Sam, a self-described “resident schmuck,” informs a skeptical Joe that his brother was struck and killed by a passing car, it launches the obnoxious visitor into a frenzied search for his lost brother; a search that uncovers a darker and more gruesome Tijuanan underbelly than either Yankee expatriate could have ever imagined. In spite of “Night Train”‘s intriguing set-up and decent performances by Cutler and Voldstad, Les Bernstien’s noirish, very black comedy never quite gets in the groove. Part of the reason is that there just isn’t enough story here. Though the film clocks in at 80 minutes, Bernstien fills up much of that time with repetitious and borderline self-indulgent surreal flashback montages that look as if they were lifted from the ahead-of-its-time speakeasy hallucination sequence in “Singing in the Rain.” Another significant problem is the absence of any sympathetic characters. Sam’s got a roguish kind of charm, but he’s really not on screen all that long, which leaves us with Joe Butcher. Though Voldstad does a fine job portraying this despicable loser, he’s just that: a despicable loser. He’s also not, shall we say, easy on the eyes and he’s a drunken cretin to boot. As if a couple of its wheels had slipped off the track, these flaws don’t derail “Night Train” completely. But they sure make viewing it a bumpy, if interesting ride.

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