Brad Davis, Irene Miracle, Bo Hopkins, Paolo Bonacelli, Paul L. Smith, Randy Quaid, Norbert Weisser, John Hurt
Billy Hayes (book) (as William Hayes), William Hoffer (book), Oliver Stone
A true story of triumph.
With the Turkish government trying to crack down on drugs, terrorism and crime, Billy Hayes has the misfortune of being caught at the border with a hashish stash. At first sentenced to four years and two months for drug possession, his prison term grows to 30 years when the prosecution’s appeal finds him guilty of smuggling. Pleas from his parents, litigation from his lawyer and actions from the U.S. Embassy amount to nothing. Things get worse when Hayes is sent to a detention center for the mentally unstable after he bites off a warden’s tongue to prevent him from divulging his escape plans. Forced to struggle with daily violence, despair and abuse, he finally reaches his breaking point and is willing to do anything to escape. Knowing that he is on his own, Hayes has one risk left to take: riding his own Midnight Express.
English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1
French Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1
Portuguese Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 121 min.
Release Date: 7/21/2009
• Audio Commentary with Director Alan Parker
• “The Producers” Featurette
• “The Production” Featurette
• “The Finished Film” Featurette
• “The Making of Midnight Express” Vintage Featurette
• Photo Gallery
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Midnight Express [Blu-Ray] (1978)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 16, 2009)
Just as Jaws scared people away from the beach back in 1975, I’ll bet that 1978’s Midnight Express affected foreign travel to certain countries. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), an American college student on a trip to Turkey with his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle). When he attempts to smuggle hashish out of the country, the authorities there apprehend him.
And that ain’t good. Billy gets stuck in a corrupt system that wants to make an example of an American “drug pusher”, and though he initially cooperates, he makes things worse when he tries to escape. Billy ends up in a ratty prison where the guards beat him for the slightest transgressions. The movie follows his ordeal as he tries to cope with his situation and make it out of jail.
I suppose there are worse things than being stuck inside a Turkish prison, but none of them come to mind right now. One aspect of Express I like comes from the unflinching nature in which it depicts it subject. I don’t think the flick revels in its unpleasant side, but it doesn’t spare us the gory details. It allows us to sense what it would be like to get stuck in such a horrific situation and doesn’t sugarcoat matters.
Some very good performances help make this work. Davis never again could live up to his sensational star-making turn here. He really invests Billy with all the appropriate feelings as he resists the inevitable urge to overplay matters. A part like this would be an over-actor’s dream since the circumstances lend themselves toward broad, hammy emotions. Davis reins in that side of things, and that makes the explosive moments more impressive. He does a particularly nice job as he conveys Billy’s feelings of powerlessness; after his arrest, the character does everything the right way but still gets screwed.
If forced to look for a weak point here, I’d spotlight Giorgio Moroder’s score. I guess many folks think it works – to my shock, the music won the Oscar – but I think the sparkly synthesizer material undercuts the movie’s impact. A film with such stark subject matter would fare better with minimal score – or none at all, honestly. Moroder’s semi-disco meanderings distract from the flick’s darkness.
Nonetheless, Midnight Express manifests more than enough power to overcome these musical faults. Dark and unrelenting, the movie conveys what it would be like to stuck in a hopeless situation far from home. It’s a rough ride but a rewarding one.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C+/ Bonus B+
Midnight Express appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. While not dazzling, the image looked quite good.
Sharpness was fine most of the time. Occasional soft shots materialized, and the style of photography meant that even the best images weren’t razor-sharp. Nonetheless, the flick looked concise and well-defined within the photographic constraints. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I noticed no edge enhancement.
Source flaws were very minor. Grain was within acceptable levels, and only a few specks appeared along the way. Really, the movie was surprisingly clean given its age.
One shouldn’t expect a broad palette from a rough drama like Express, and the colors stayed within the anticipated range. Earthy tones dominated, with only a few brighter hues on rare occasions. I wouldn’t say the colors looked particularly good, but they were fine within the film’s style. Blacks were dark and tight, while shadows showed fairly good delineation; low-light shots could be a little murky but not in a problematic manner. Overall, the image seemed positive.
Remixed from the original monaural source – which also appeared on the DVD – the Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack of Midnight Express was average. In terms of the expanded soundfield, there’s usually not much to it. Music spread across the front and rear but not with any great stereo imaging; the delineation of the score tended to be somewhat mushy. Effects showed moderate distinctiveness at times, as the ambience opened things up in a minor way. These elements never became particularly immersive, but they added a little life on occasion.
Audio quality seemed acceptable. Music was again the weakest link, as the synthesized score tended to be a bit thin. Some of those elements showed decent dimensionality, but others were somewhat lifeless. Effects appeared reasonably concise, at least, and speech was fine. The lines remained intelligible and fairly natural throughout the flick. This was an unmemorable soundtrack.
How does the picture and audio of this Blu-ray Disc compare to those of the 30th Anniversary DVD from 2008? The audio remains about the same; given the source stems, I think this is about as good as it’ll get. I believe both the DVD and the Blu-ray come from the same visual transfer as well, so they display many similarities.
That said, the Blu-ray definitely looks better. The extra resolution adds some punch, especially in wider shots. Since much of the movie is meant to be a little soft, there’s only so much the Blu-ray can do, but I still feel it offers a more satisfying visual experience.
This Blu-ray of Express comes with most of the same extras as the 2008 DVD. It also adds a few components. I’ll note Blu-ray exclusives with special blue type.
We open with an audio commentary from director Alan Parker. He provides a running, screen-specific chat in which he discusses script and story issues, locations and sets, the film’s use of language and some controversies, sound and music, camerawork and editing, cast and performances, the shooting schedule, and a mix of other production topics.
From start to finish, Parker provides an absolutely fascinating look at his film. He leaves virtually no subjects untouched, and he offers a frank appraisal of matters. For instance, Parker tells us how he and Oliver Stone failed to get along, and we get funny tales about Paul Smith’s excessive perspiration. This commentary covers the movie exceedingly well and thoroughly entertains along the way.
Three related featurettes follow. We find The Producers (25:50), The Production (24:28) and The Finished Film (23:47). Across these we get notes from Parker, producers Peter Guber, Alan Marshall and David Puttnam, the real-life Billy Hayes, screenwriter Oliver Stone, and actor John Hurt. These programs look at the project’s genesis and path to the screen as well as aspects of the script, casting and performances, how Parker came to it, locations and facets of the shoot, cinematography, editing and score, reactions to the film and controversies.
Given that Parker covers so much in his commentary, a fair amount of repetition becomes inevitable. Indeed, you’ll find a lot of the same notes, but the additional perspectives prove valuable. We get enough new takes on the various issues to make these featurettes useful.
We also find an archival featurette called The Making of Midnight Express. In this seven-minute and 27-second piece, we hear from Hayes, Guber, and Billy’s father. Nothing particularly memorable appears here, but it’s good to get more from the real Billy as well as a brief glimpse of his old man.
A running Photo Gallery lasts 12 minutes, 40 seconds. It includes a few shots from the set but mostly presents images from the film. Frankly, it’s a dull collection.
A trailer for Blu-ray Disc appears at the start. In the “Trailers” area, we also get clips for The Da Vinci Code, A River Runs Through It, Not Easily Broken, Obsessed, Casino Royale, and Damages Season One. No trailer for Express appears here.
Finally, the package includes a 36-page booklet. It includes “a personal memoir” from Parker. He writes a good encapsulation of the production and continues to be informative and entertaining. Of course, he repeats some info from the commentary, but he gives us more than enough new material to satisfy.
Does the Blu-ray change anything from the 2008 DVD? It loses the film’s trailer, and it may alter the booklet, though in a positive way. I don’t still own the 2008 DVD, but I noted that its booklet filled 28 pages, while this one goes for 36 pages. I think both offer the same content but the Blu-ray’s booklet is smaller so it fills more pages. I could be wrong, though.
30 years after its release, Midnight Express continues to impress. Harrowing and unpleasant, the film delivers a strong sense of verisimilitude and creates a good look at a miserable situation. The Blu-ray offers better than expected picture, acceptable but dated audio, and a few nice extras; the audio commentary proves particularly enjoyable. A film this rough won’t be for everyone, but I definitely recommend it.
Should fans who already own the 2008 DVD upgrade to this one? It’s a close call, honestly. I think the Blu-ray provides a good visual upgrade, but I also feel that Express isn’t a movie that strongly benefits from the extra detail. Sure, it’s nice, but it’s not like the greater resolution somehow makes it a much more satisfying experience. If you don’t have the prior DVD, go with the Blu-ray, but otherwise, I think you’re fine with the earlier release.
To rate this film visit the 30th Anniversary Edition review of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS