Runaway Train: The Best Film You've Never Seen

Originating from an earlier script by “Seven Samurai” maestro Akira Kurosawa, the 1985 action thriller Runaway Train boasts an unusually cosmopolitan pedigree.
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Originating from an earlier script by “Seven Samurai” maestro Akira Kurosawa, the 1985 action thriller Runaway Train boasts an unusually cosmopolitan pedigree.

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With the Japanese production mothballed due to Kurosawa’s health problems, Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky stepped in with the help of Israeli backers, salvaging the title for his first US-based project. The resulting film fulfils all expectations as a high-octane thriller, and with its artful direction, outstanding cast performances and spectacular camerawork, perhaps transcends the action-flick genre altogether.

Following the trail of two fugitive jailbirds across the unforgiving Alaskan landscape, the film pushes action cinema’s exaggerated notions of masculinity to brutal extremes. Manny, played with nostril-flaring grit by Jon Voight, is a hard-boiled longtimer, idolised by his fellow inmates in Stonehaven penitentiary, a snowbound pit presided over by despotic governor Ranken. When a court appeal forces the con’s return to general population after three years of being welded into his cell, escape plans are put into effect, with the assistance of Buck (Eric Roberts). A cellblock boxer doing time for statutory rape, Buck regards Manny with a puppyish loyalty − something the self-reliant older con will clearly never reciprocate.

The plausibility of the film’s tone is largely down to Ed Bunker’s contributions as a script advisor; Voight meanwhile put in some extra research on his own account, fraternising with inmates of San Quentin prison. Thus informed, his performance is exceptional. A brutalised, raging individual, Manny has little going in the way of empathy, least of all for sidekick Buck, whose fidelity is rewarded with a series of put-downs, rebukes, and physical blows. Voight’s character is no hero – the film can’t really be said to have one – but he possibly ranks as one of cinema’s more rounded bad guys; he’s painfully aware of his own failure to integrate, and of the hopelessness of his own cause. In one sequence, Buck is cut short from his small-time criminal reverie with a stinging reprimand, Manny berating the would-be high roller to apply himself to some menial job should their escape succeed. ‘Could YOU do that kind of shit?’ the crestfallen younger man protests. Manny visibly deflates. ‘I wish I could…’ he quietly concedes.

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Having slogged through the prison’s sewers, freezing river water and snowy wasteland to arrive at a railway marshalling yard, a ride home presents itself. Emerging majestically through a foggy veil, the ‘limousine to Broadway’ draws up − a formidable quartet of co-joined diesel locomotives. As the cons hook a ride on the rearmost unit, Buck imagines he’s home dry. Manny sniffs trouble however, and his instincts are sound; unbeknown to either, the engineer has collapsed from heart failure, and the lead unit’s brake-blocks have burned out, leaving several hundred tons of serious horsepower accelerating down the line with nobody at the controls.

As the cons’ predicament begins to dawn on them, their masculine dynamic is intruded upon by Sara, Rebecca De Mornay’s pink-cheeked railroad employee who, having taken a nap in one of the units, awakes to this ticklish situation. Forced by necessity to hold her own in this intimidating company, Sara’s technical knowledge may hold the solution to depowering the blocked-off lead unit, but she’s increasingly caught up in the push and shove between her testosterone-stoked companions.

As the line’s hapless operators struggle to contain the situation, Manny’s prison nemesis again looms. Commandeering a police helicopter, the monomaniacal Ranken, a latter-day Captain Ahab in an N3-pattern parka, is vindictive enough in his pursuit of the jailbird to gamble his own life and others.

With retribution and mechanical catastrophe closing in fast, Runaway Train’s climaxing sequences are a consummate feat of action cinema; the external moving shots − achieved with harnesses and a crack team of mountaineering experts − are breathtaking. And when Manny’s final showdown with Ranken comes, the confrontation is in turn brutal and philosophical. ‘We’re BOTH scum, brother’, the con, by now reconciled with fate, grins at his counterpart, as terminal impact draws inexorably closer.

The film’s conclusion is an unexpectedly poetic sequence, the adrenaline-pumped build-up finding resolution in a curiously ghostly final reel. There’s an underlying subtlety to this feature that the Hollywood system on its own would have struggled to achieve. A meeting of hard-boiled US crime drama and the understated sensibilities of eastern cinema, Konchalovsky’s feature is the ultimate take on the Unstoppable Force Paradox.

Runaway Train is out now on Blu Ray through Anchor Video.