Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train was a film that instantly intrigued viewers to the city of Memphis. Many Elvis fans have made the pilgrimage to see the King’s Graceland home, now museum -- Sun Studio, where numerous legends have once recorded. Memphis is also known as the location of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel, where many people stand in the same balcony where Dr. King was murdered. Until Jarmusch’s Mystery Train was filmed in 1989, Memphis did not have a major movie shot within the city limits since King Vidor’s 1929 Hallelujah.
Now I know Mystery Train is often compared to Pulp Fiction, but I personally believe the two movies are completely different with one similarity. The classic Criterion picture includes three stories linked to a rundown inn known as the Arcade Hotel and the spirit of The King himself. The first one has two Japanese tourists who are traveling across the United States and stopping to view many historical sites. Both Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) have a huge passion for Elvis. Jun has more interest in Carl Perkins and wants to visit Sun Studio, while Mitsuko is dying to see Graceland. As the two wander off in Memphis, they decide to call it a night at a dumpy hotel ran by a night clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and a bellboy (Cinque Lee).
The next story follows a young Italian woman named Louisa (Nicoletta Braschi) who’s trying to transport her dead husband's corpse back to Italy. After an accident occurs at the airport, Louisa is stranded and decides to take a stroll around town that doesn’t go so well. She continuously gets ripped off and eventually, comes to the conclusion to just call it a night where she ends up at the same rundown hotel. There she meets Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) who won’t shut up about her husband Johnny and how she recently left him.
The final story called ‘Lost in Space’ revolves around three men: Johnny (Joe Strummer, Dee Dee’s husband), Will (Rick Aviles) and Johnny’s brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi), who are attempting to get Johnny home from a bad drunken night. All seems easy until a visit to the liquor store goes terribly wrong. The three men in a panic simply ride around town almost the entire night until Charlie decides that they have had enough and need to find a place to lay low for a while. Needing a place to crash, Will recommends a place where his cousin works at, yes, the same rundown hotel.
Mystery Train is a fun-suspenseful three story film revolving around historical sites in Memphis, Tennessee and around a poverty community. There are plenty of Elvis references for fans of The King that may encourage them to take their own pilgrimage to The Kings home city where he was raised. Most movies attempt to show viewers glamorous sights and have fancy props, but Jarmusch goes a completely different way here with his audience. Instead of the typical Hollywood vision, Jarmusch gets down and dirty. With the majority of the movie taking place in a deprived community, it really touched home for me and made me enjoy the different scenery from the norm I’m use to watching.
None of the stories overlap; they all take place on the same night, and all end up in the same location. Even though the stories don’t overlap, in the first two stories you do receive a glimpse of a few of the characters from the final tale. The first story is the one I’m sure most will complain about as the two Japanese characters don’t even speak English and the pace of the movie is pretty slow, but they start all the loose ends and twists that come forward. The next short has more dialogue and has a faster pace. Louisa involves herself in more conversations which helps the movie flow from the two Japanese kids. Once she meets Dee Dee, the dialogue never settles down as Dee Dee is such a talkative person. The final short was my favorite of the three, though, with more action, more hood, and more drama. It's also more connected with the second short as now the man Dee Dee spoke of so much gets to explain his side of the story which was actually quite entertaining to see. The hotel is very vital for all three stories and does have an incident that connects them, but I won't give that away. It’s something you have to watch and find out for yourself.
The Criterion Collection presents Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train in full 1080p via AVC encode and framed at its original aspect of 1.77:1. The transfer to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection was supervised and approved by the director himself. “This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit HD from a 35 mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction."
The transfer looks absolutely great even though the film is 23-years old. The clarity of the picture really stands out to me especially on night shots. Considering the movie's age I assumed it would be disturbed by plenty of grain in the many night sequences. Colors are strong, especially the red of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins suit. Black levels and contrast are razor-sharp without losing any stability of clarity. Grain is very moderate. The grain has been cleaned up some, but still has that authentic appearance. Location shots really give the movie its edge and fit the plot substantially well. The area where the movie was filmed gives it that extra dirty and grinding making it a character in itself. Edge Enhancement does not mess with the visual look, but actually assists it to a better appearance in my opinion. Mystery Train is by no means a demo disc, but for a catalog title, The Criterion Collection release is impressive and the best it has ever looked on a home-video.
The English LPCM 1.0 track is the only audio option on the Blu-ray disc of Mystery Train. I know a mono audio sound mix doesn’t sound so great, but for a dialogue driven movie, it’s really not that bad. Dialogue is clear; never an issue to understand even though a portion of the movie is subbed. The only time the 1.0 mono mix didn’t deliver in my opinion is during the classic soundtrack moments and the train's noise was never given enough power like it should have. According to booklet inside the Blu-ray disc, "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35 mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
All supplements from the DVD version of Criterion's release of Mystery Train have been carried over and transferred to HD. Beyond the upgraded features from the DVD release, the Blu-ray contains nothing more.
Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train is an exciting ride around the city of Memphis. Viewers will also surely gain interest in the city itself or on Elvis. Either way, the movie is quite unique and has many different cultures shown on screen. The majority of the film's pacing is slow, but as you watch for the first time, you’ll see that a fast-paced beginning is never needed. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc of Mystery Train is a must-own.