Runaway Train (1985) – The Title Doesn’t Say it All…

A prison break and runaway locomotive thriller as harsh and unforgiving as its bleak Alaskan setting, Runaway Train overcomes the unimaginative title to become a  hard-bitten, brutal, intelligent mini classic.

Jon Voight stars as Oscar “Manny” Manheim, a ferocious murderer and bank robber welded into a solitary confinement cell for three years by his nemesis, warden Rankin (John P Ryan).

Manny is a hero among fellow inmates.  News of his appeal is greeted with jubilation and a riot by the other cons, including hotheaded, dimwitted boxer Buck (Eric Roberts) and loyal friend Jonah (Edward Bunker).

Rankin can’t wait for Manny to try escaping again so he can have him shot; he also coerces another convict to make an attempt on Manny’s life in a sneak knife attack. Manny survives, and resolves to break out no matter what, and enlists the starstruck Buck to slip him out of the cell block in a laundry basket.

From the prison yard, Manny and Buck make an escape through the sewers and survive a three hundred foot drop into a freezing river.  They then face a trek across the Alaskan wilderness in minus thirty temperatures, arriving at a desolate railway station.  Here they choose a train for their ride to freedom…

The title probably gives it away that they pick the wrong train – an aging, ice encrusted convoy of four engines. The engineer suffers a heart attack and dies before he can shut the vehicle down properly, and the train soon burns off it’s breaks and starts building speed across the icy landscape.

The two escapees discover they are not the only people on the train.  They find another railway employee, Sarah (Rebecca DeMornay), who was asleep in one of the other engines when the disaster started out.

From here on, the action switches between the uneasy alliance of Manny, Buck and Sarah, as they make perilous progress from engine to engine in an attempt to slow down the train; to the men in the control room tasked with attempting to avert disaster as the runaway ploughs along the track towards other vehicles; and the hellbent Rankin, who is determined to hunt down Manny and kill him.

Written by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and helmed by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, Runaway Train is a hybrid of two B-movie genres that soars beyond Hollywood conventions.  It is a bleak and relentless vision, pitting brutal characters against a starkly beautiful, harsh environment as it builds towards its magnificent conclusion.

There are no likable characters in this film. All the inmates of Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison are violent robbers, murderers and rapists, and the men who guard them aren’t much better.

The railway dispatchers in the control room are all sexist, arrogant, pigheaded blusterers. There’s no sardonic yet kindly characters like Walter Matthau’s Lieutenant Garber in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 trying to avert this crisis.

The few female characters are mostly bit parts.  A female prison guard leered at by the inmates, a secretary bellowed at by her chauvinistic bosses.  It’s a tough man’s world, and even Rebecca De Mornay is stripped of all her usual glamour, bundled up in overalls and face caked with grease.  She is also given all the bum lines in an underwritten part: “Boy, I guess you guys picked the wrong train.”

The film’s tense atmosphere and volatile relationships between characters is used to explore the primal instincts of violent men.  Buck is portrayed as essentially good-natured, but impulsive and corrupted by time inside; when brutally battered in the film’s most powerful scene, he switches to base survival instincts.

Manny is compared to an animal early in the film by Warden Rankin when quizzed about the inhumanity of keeping someone welded in a cell for three years.  Even the initially timid Sarah reverts to a feral yell of “Kill Him!” when Buck and Manny have their final, decisive face off.

It’s a grim, exciting film, and the excellent performances of Voight and Roberts makes you actually care about two hardened criminals.

Roberts, whose career has otherwise been a colorful, mostly straight-to-DVD parade of cartoon villains and leathery crime bosses, is worth his Oscar Nomination here.  He imbues Buck with just the right amount of little-boy-lost pity inside the youthful, excitable statutory rapist who idolizes Manny.

It’s Jon Voight’s picture, though.  Like many of his peers who came to prominence in the 70’s – Hoffman, Pacino, DeNiro, – Voight has been a shadow of himself for most of the last three decades.

However, in Runaway Train, Voight surpasses his more famous work in Midnight Cowboy, The Champ and Coming Home.  He is magnetic in a visceral performance as Manny.  He is a man with a lifetime of violence, yet has the intellect to understand what he has become.  He is weary and defeated, but a fierce survival instinct keeps pushing him onwards – he knows he’s going to die, but he’s absolutely determined to do it on his own terms.

Late in the film, before making his final leap of destiny to the lead train and a confrontation with Rankin (who’s dropped in by helicopter onto the speeding, out of control engine in one of the film’s unlikeliest moments), Manny sneers at Buck and Sarah, “We all die alone.”

And it’s telling that Manny is happy with it.  Rather than look into the eyes of his bitter enemy when the final moment comes, Manny prefers to stand by himself and face his fate, literally, head on.

It’s a riveting performance, for which Voight was nominated for Best Actor.  He lost out to William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The other star of the film is the train itself.  Filmed using real Alaskan railroad locomotives where CGI would probably stand in today, you can feel the terrifying bulk and velocity of these beasts as they plummet headlong along the track.

Runaway Train is not a cheerful experience, but it is a tight, exciting and intelligent thriller with a surprisingly moving conclusion.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 06/06/2012, in Adventure, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Prison, R, Reviews, Thriller, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I honestly think this is one of the most underrated films of all time. In the wrong hands it could have been a simple action movie on the train, but the people involved elevate it to something more. You’ve got high tension, great performances from everyone involved, a cold, winter mood/atmosphere and philosophical musings. Great film.

    • Oh, and I should have also said that it’s a bit surprising (though maybe not altogether shocking) that a film based on a screenplay Kurosawa would be produced Golan-Globus. Maybe Cannon wanted a straightforward action pic, and Konchalovsky one-upped them.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read & comment. I agree – I can’t help thinking that the pic’s formulaic title might prevent it picking up new viewers…

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