Runaway Train

Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy, 1985. Starring: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay. Action/Adventure.
Runaway Train

On a first peek the Golan/Globus produced Runaway Train looks like it could be a standard prison-break action flick, but further along the viewer realizes it’s much more.Though it has slam-bang action and some spectacular stunt work, it’s actually some kind of thought-provoking, oddly foreign feeling (meaning perhaps, intellectual) character study. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' company Cannon Films made its name in the '80s with loud action movies like the Missing in Action flicks, the Sly Stallone steroidy Cobra, Breakin’ (and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) and the unwarranted sequels to Death Wish (including the so-bad-it’s-good Death Wish 3). On paper Runaway Train should have been just more adrenaline-sploitation, but the back story alone led it in a direction that made it totally unique. It's based on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa (and his long time collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima), who had been hoping to make it back in the late '60s. Instead veteran Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy took it over, while Kurosawa got a “based on a screenplay by” credit and the final script credits went to the odd threesome of Djordje Milicevic (a Serb), Paul Zindel (famous for writing the play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) and the very interesting Edward Bunker, who turned his own criminal life into a successful writing and acting career. (Books he wrote were adapted into the underrated movies Straight Time and Animal Factory, and as an actor he appeared in many films including Runaway Train. Most famously he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. What a long strange trip it’s been, indeed.)

In a nasty, damp Alaskan prison, superstar criminal bank robber (Jon Voight) has won his state appeal. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is forced to remove him from solitary confinement, where his cell was welded shut. He's a legendary badass and the prisoners are excited to have him back in the population, especially his brother, Jonah (Bunker) and a young boxer, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who's in on a statutory rape conviction and who takes hero worship to a new level. Manny wants to escape with his bro but when Ranken sends a killer after Manny, Jonah ends up getting messed up bad. So by default Manny hooks up with the annoying Buck instead. The two escape through a drain pipe and then make an impossible trek through a freezing Alaskan wasteland and eventually hop a freight train...home free. Somehow the train conductor dies and the train becomes a runaway, barreling through another train and making a deadly derailment the only possible option for the befuddled group of train dispatchers (C.K Carter, Kenneth McMillan and Kyle T. Heffner, the nerd from Flashdance). It turns out the train does have another passenger, a railroad worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, a few years after her breakthrough in Risky Business, still looking for the role that should have taken her to the next level--something that unfortunately never quite happened for this talented actress).

Buck, Manny and Sara explore every option to stopping the train’s killer rampage but they are stuck, unable to reach the front engine control. They come to realize the ends of their lives could be coming soon. And here thefilm takes a shift into a different kind of intensity. It becomes a sorta Kurosawian morality tale. Manny also begins to show his more monstrous nihilistic side, willing to sacrifice the other passengers to survive. Eventually Sara and Buck are forced to team up against him in a fight. It’s the existentialism of No Exit, but on a train with two brutes fighting for each other’s throats and perhaps souls. Though the film is filled with some unbelievable coincidences and clichés, Konchalovskiy has bigger goals than just popcorn. For instance, it’s absurd when Warden Ranken helicopters himself on to the train, but what it leads to is an ending of violent beauty.

There is a pulse pounding electric score by Trevor Jones (The Last of the Mohicans) that is used splendidly. And the film does an incredible job of capturing the danger of the train and the brutality of the Alaskan winter. Kudos to cinematographer Alan Hume (whose resume goes back to TV’s The Avengers and includes another underrated genre classic, Eye of The Needle, as well as Return of the Jedi, a couple of late entry Roger Moore James Bonds and the ultra-guilty-pleasure Lifeforce).

The performances of Voight and Roberts are the other major talking point of Runaway Train; both, to the surprise of many modern day historians, got Oscar nominations for their work. Crazy considering the content and the fact that Golan/Globus weren’t exactly awards season Miramax-style producers. (Editor Henry Richardson also scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination.) Both actors started their careers as methody pretty-boys. Voight, of course hit the big time with Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance and then won an Oscar for Coming Home, while Roberts was less of a mainstream splash, but still very respected for his scenery chewing work in King of the Gypsies and his deeply disturbing performance as real-life super sleaze Paul Snider in Star 80. By ’85 Voight was ready to move into character work. He had still been handsome leading man material in his previous film Table for Five, so audiences were not fully prepared for the new totally against-type Voight of Runaway Train, with broken teeth, and prosthetics used to make his eyes and nose more damaged as well as a very strange accent that sounds like some kinda urban Euro. The intensity of Voight is absolutely mesmerizing here. At this point in Roberts’ career what made him extra appealing was his willingness to go right up to the ham-wall of overdoing it with his tics and histrionics; he beautifully went right up to it in Star 80, but went over it in The Pope of Greenwich Village. In Runaway Train he manages to just hover around it. He does a lot of theatrics and emoting but he seems to be digging deep, and it’s exhilarating to watch. (There is a reason why, for a brief moment in the early '80s, Roberts was considered a part of the exciting young method actors club along with Penn, Oldman and Rourke).

Runaway Train was one of a kind. It certainly ranks with The Road Warrior as one of the truly original action films of the decade (and one would probably want to add Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard and First Blood to any list of best action films of the era). Interestingly the other four have been ripped-off and sequelized many times over. While Runaway Train still stands alone--no sequels, no blatant rip-offs--there really has been nothing quite like it since. (The closest I could come up with was the recent Snowpiercer. Also madly original, when trying to describe it I may have mentioned Runaway Train among other titles to compare it to). Also ironic that the short lived Cannon Films, which made its bones cashing in on trends and basically stealing ideas from other genre films that had already been successful, would find itself with such an oddity. They were quick-buck artists and Runaway Train probably didn’t make them as much dough as some of their now-forgotten titles did, but it’s the one movie of theirs that has clearly stood the test of time the best and of which they can be the most proud. Thank you for putting an old script by a Japanese director together with a Russian director and a motley hodgepodge of a cast and crew and giving us a sorta weird masterpiece.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 25, 2014 12:16pm
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