Film Review: Runaway Train (1985)

(source: tmdb.org)

The Cannon Group was the studio traditionally associated with everything that was wrong about 1980s exploitation cinema. Its founders Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus were, on rare ocassions, engaged in quite different kind of films and on even rarer occasions got rewarded for those efforts with good critical reviews, prestigious festival awards and even Oscar nominations. The best known of such aberrations and arguably the best film in the history of the studio was Runaway Train, 1985 action drama directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

The film is based on the script originally written by famed Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa. The final version, written by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker, is set in Alaska and begins in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. Its best known inmate is Oscar “Manny” Manheim (played by Jon Voight), bank robber who is serving life sentence. Last three years he has spent in solitary confinement following repeated escape attempts. After he is released from there following court order, he triumphantly returns among general population which worships him as a hero. Associate warden Ranken (played by John P. Ryan) is on the other hand, quite displeased with this and he lets Manny know that he would kill him at first opportunity. Manny decides to escape and does so with the help of Buck McGeehy (played by Eric Roberts), young, charming but intellectually deficient trustee who impulsively decides to join Manny during his trek through Alaska wilderness. Two men manage to find shelter at railway depot and from there hop into freight train. Unbeknownst to them, the engineer dies of heart attack, while automatic brakes fail, after which train starts running without control. As the railway company dispatcher work frantically to clear the lines and find the solution to the problem, Manny and Buck discover that Sara (played by Rebecca De Mornay), female railway company employee, is also on the train. As she tries to explain the situation, Ranken, which has conducted manhunt with helicopter, is determined to have final showdown with Manny, whether he is on runaway train or not.

What sets Runaway Train apart from not only average Cannon action film, but also most Hollywood action films of its time, is great care about authenticity. This could be seen from the very start, in relatively brief but effective scenes that show the depressive and violent atmosphere of prison. It was, among other things, achieved by using ex convicts as production advisers and members of cast or crew. This included Edward Bunker who, apart from co-writing screenplay, appears in small role of convict, as well as Bunker’s friend Danny Trejo who had the acting debut in small role of boxer, and which sparked an impressive career of a character actor. Konchalovsky also insisted on realism by using real life locations and props as much as possible, and cinematography by Alan Hume was modelled on documentaries.

The rawness of the production style was well-matched by incredible work by actors. Jon Voight, who until that time used to play heroic or sympathetic characters, was incredibly powerful in the role of extremely violent, brutal and single-minded anti-hero. Protagonist of Midnight Cowboy is almost unrecognisable with deformed teeth and the vocabulary that is almost completely made out of the vilest of profanities. His performance is powerful and the audience can accept Manny both as man other convicts would see as their role model and spiritual hero while, at the same time, understand Ranken when he describes him as “an animal”. Eric Roberts, who, according to his own testimony, based his role on personal experiences with former convicts, delivers another great performance, playing the character burdened with childlike innocence, pathetic cowardice and obvious lack of intelligence which allows him to follow Manny like puppy only to turn against him in the second part of the film. Roberts was in many of his roles irritating, but Buck was perfect for him and, just like Voight, he earned Oscar nomination for his effort. Sadly, this was the point when both of those actors’ careers began to turn for the worse. Voight began to play one-dimensional villains, while Roberts began to appear almost exclusively in action B-films, very much like those Cannon has built reputation on.

Apart from George P. Ryan, who chews scenery in the role of psychotic prison official, another interesting performance is provided by Rebbeca DeMornay. Her character is brought to the film only in order to give clearer outside perspective to two main anti-heroes and their dilemmas while they ride into their doom. She was also made female only because of commercial considerations, because such film simply had to have major female character. De Mornay portrays her, however, almost without any femininity, hidden under layers of warmth clothes and dirt on her face. That look, which is arguably the least glamorous of her career, is nevertheless accompanied by strong acting performance. Throughout the film we learn next to nothing about Sara and her background, but her emotions and the way she reacts with the two men on board is as raw as in the case of Voight and Roberts.

Runaway Train, on the other hand, isn’t without its flaws. One of them can be found in the scenes featuring railway company dispatching centre and its dysfunctional personnel led by Frank Barstow (played by Kyle T. Heffner). This segment is supposed to give some sort of levity to otherwise dark story, but characters that are supposed to be as “normal” as possible in this film at times look pathetic, indulged in some misguided socio-philosophical commentary (like when Barstow complains that the same civilisation that can send satellites in space can’t stop a single runaway train) or look neurotic to the point of parody. That can be seen in the character of Barstow’s boss Eddie McDonald (played by Kenneth McMillan) that goes into serious over-acting. Choice of music also seems to be unfortunate, with middle section sounding too much like typical 1980s cheap Cannon film, and the ending pretentiously sombre. Despite that, Runaway Train is a very good film that would make many cinephiles wonder what kind of pleasant surprises Cannon could have brought if allowed to exist a decade longer.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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