Story: As he prepares to board a flight out of the Istanbul Airport, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is more nervous than most of his fellow passengers, as he happens to have two kilos of hashish strapped on under his clothes. He manages to clear some checkpoints, but he is eventually pulled to the side and the smuggled drugs are discovered. His girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle) is able to board thanks to Billy making her go ahead without him, but Billy himself finds himself in a world of trouble. Asked to turn on his supplier, Billy agrees hoping for leniency and at first, his cooperation seems to have worked, as he is given a four sentence for possession, rather than a smuggling charge. But the prison is brutal and he struggles to endure within its walls, even for the shorter sentence. Billy is able to make some friends and enemies while inside, as he eyes his release date, but when an additional thirty years is tacked on just as he is about to walk free, can he survive this latest injustice?
Entertainment Value: I think Midnight Express, which won writer Oliver Stone an Academy Award, is a well crafted movie that might be dated, but the kind of cruelty shown within the prison system remains a relevant topic of discussion. After all, it isn’t prisons abroad that rack up rights violations, so a lot about the film remains valid criticism. The narrative follows a less than sympathetic drug mule, which I’ve noticed is a sticking point for a lot of folks. I don’t need to like the lead to feel sympathy for him or his situation, so I didn’t mind that he was a criminal or had some entitlement issues, as those are common foibles of people all over. As has been acknowledged by Stone and others involved, the liberties taken with the real life events, especially the one sided, tunnel vision view of Turkey, leaves a lot to be desired and was sensationalized compared to the real life version. I do think more realism wouldn’t have hurt, but Midnight Express remains a powerful picture despite its flaws and I think it is well worth seeking out for film buffs of all kinds.
Midnight Express has a deep, talented ensemble cast that performs well on the whole, but for me, the most memorable presence was Paul L. Smith. Smith is a vision of intimidation here, a hulking figure that inspires dread just by being around and he plays the role of the main guard like a beast, ready to attack at a moment’s notice. I think Smith’s powerful presence adds so much tension, as you just know if he catches wind of any hijinks, the hammer is coming down hard. You need a real sense of danger and authority in a prison film like this, so Smith covers that with ease. This is one of the most effective heavies in cinema and Smith manages it on pure visual terror, no small feat. John Hurt is also memorable, in a colorful and emotional role as one of the prisoners. Mike Kellin and Randy Quaid also stand out, with both in dialed up performances here. The cast also includes Brad Davis, Bo Hopkins, Mike Kellin, and Irene Miracle.