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Runaway Train

by Glenn Erickson Nov 15, 2016

Cannon Films knocks one out of the park: Jon Voight and Eric Roberts escape from prison only to end up on a huge, speeding, out of control juggernaut of a freight train plowing through the Alaskan wilderness. It’s both an action bruise-fest and an existential statement, and it’s still a wild thrill ride.

Runaway Train
Twilight Time
1985 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 111 min. / Street Date October 11, 2016 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, Kyle T. Heffner, John P. Ryan T.K. Carter, Kenneth McMillan, Edward Bunker, Hank Worden, Danny Trejo, Tommy Lister, Don MacLaughlin, Loren James, Dick Durock, Dennis Franz.
Cinematography Alan Hume
Original Music Trevor Jones
Written by Djordje Milecevic, Paul Zindel, Edward Bunker based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa.
Produced by Yoram Globus, Menachem Golan
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

When I stumbled into The Cannon Group on La Cienega in early 1987, the company was pretty much on the downslide from a lot of busy, expensive filmmaking, a period roughly from 1983 to 1987. The kids I worked with in the trailer department – most of them ten years younger than I was – made jokes about the quality of many of the movies, but everyone respected a particular Cannon release, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train. I also remember seeing news coverage of it here locally in Los Angeles, showing that a film company had taken over the crumbling Pan Pacific Auditorium, to film large-scale special effects using train mock-ups.

Runaway Train also had the non-exploitation cachet of being written by the highly respected Akira Kurosawa. Even young Star Wars fans knew who Kurosawa was: George Lucas had appropriated parts of the director’s The Hidden Fortress as the basis of his space fantasy.

But the grabber for Runaway Train was a tone of relentless action and single-mindedness of purpose. It isn’t just that the film has no narrative fat. It establishes a fever-pitch conflict between extreme characters and immediately puts them in motion. At least two-thirds of its running time is spent on a snow-covered freight train barrelling through the Alaskan wilderness, out of control.

The movie has the simplicity of a graphic novel — everything is exaggerated, yet believable. It takes place in Alaska, in the Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. The place is in a constant state of near-riot. Prisoners and guards alike have been driven mad by Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), a psychotic who has made a name for himself bragging on TV shows about how he treats the ‘animals’ in his care. The almost legendary criminal Oscar ‘Manny’ Mannheim (Jon Voight) rebels against Ranken’s authority. He hasn’t left his isolation cell in three years — Ranken had the door welded shut. A court order springs Manny from that confinement, but Ranken pays a prisoner to murder him. When that doesn’t work, Manny determines to use an escape route through the sewer. His brother and fellow convict Jonah (co-screenwriter Edward Bunker) can’t come along, so Manny allows a punk, boxer Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) to join him in an escape into the terrible winter snow. They make it to a rail yard and hide themselves in a string of fast freight engines that’s just pulling out… unaware that its engineer has had a heart attack. Joined by railroad employee Sara, who was sleeping on the job (Rebecca De Mornay), Manny and Buck are trapped on a speeding train, unable to reach the lead locomotive where the shutdown switches are.

Usually, when the characters in a movie start out yelling at each other and continue to do so for two hours, the effect can be mind-numbing. That’s happens here too, but because every outburst gets us closer to understanding the psychology of the characters, it’s bearable. Jon Voight’s Manny is your standard Rebelus Extremus, a Spartacus with bad teeth, scars around his eyes and the stigmata of a fresh wound through his left hand. Instead of being incapacitated, Manny is just a little less tough than he might be. One of the film’s writers wrote Barbra Streisand’s feminist film Up the Sandbox. Another had been a convict, and wrote Dustin Hoffman’s excellent story of a parolee, Straight Time. The soundtrack crackles with good dialogue, even in the more cartoonish scenes in the prison, as when Ranken sends a hit man to kill Manny during a boxing bout, with the entire prison population aware that he’s doing so.

The character matchup works rather well. Eric Roberts is an insecure motor mouth. He desperately wants to be taken seriously by Manny, who he idolizes for all the wrong reasons. Under the intolerable pressure of the wild train ride ordeal, Manny freaks out several times in uncontrollable rage. Manny has surmounted so many obstacles that a simple access door that won’t open makes him thrash around like a mad bull.

Commercial movies in 1985 needed ‘a girl.’ Director Konchalovsky has worked in the talented Rebecca De Mornay, who serves as little more than a source of exposition and someone to ‘ask tough questions’ of the deranged Manny. Helping to place the action in some kind of reality is the chaos back in the railroad control headquarters, which is a little reminiscent of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Kyle T. Heffner is proud of his computerized MS-DOS train system, and Kenneth McMillan is a welcome presence during all the yelling and arguing about whether to derail the train or let it continue and hope for the best. The great John P. Ryan holds up his end brilliantly as the crazy Warden who pursues the runaway train as if Manny were The Great White Whale. The film gets away with the unlikely gag of having a helicopter pace the train at 80-90 mph, so that men can try to transfer to it via a rope ladder. Is there extra pay for that?

Ugly, explicit dialogue makes Stonehaven seem a real hellhole, and combined with bits of gore, the movie has the tone of a Paul Verhoeven picture without Verhoeven’s craziest excesses. What amazed viewers in 1985 is that all of this cartoonish action seemed so real — CG Imagery hadn’t yet compromised the notion of ‘suspension of disbelief.’ We get so many great angles showing our actors on the train that we really believe they’re out there in the elements, hanging onto the speeding, frozen juggernaut. Sticking one’s head out a car window at 80 mph isn’t recommended, and doing it in the frozen air would hit one’s face like sandpaper.

The camera crew and effects experts for Runaway Train pull off illusions so good that they’d never be nominated for an Oscar (although the film was nominated for Henry Richardson’s editing). Process photography with mockups in that big auditorium saves the day — it doesn’t even look like process photography, as the angles are so unusual. The camera isn’t locked down, and in fact, jostles all over the place, imitating the difficulty a cameraman would experience. I hope I haven’t a faulty memory, but I believe I remember seeing a BTS show that said some shots even used rolling backdrops, mechanical painted canvasses of trees (a side angle) or the railway bed (down angle). Blurred with the camera shutter and equalized in the film grading, that silent-movie trick could have been used for close-ups, especially when characters are hanging between the cars.

Any time we see actors working around real trains, be very aware of the everyday hazards, the potential price of a simple miscalculation. There’s plenty of real stunt work in Runaway Train, filmed way out in the snow in Alaska and Montana. The show never cheats on its visuals. Chalk that up to the Russian director, eager for a technical challenge. Imagine how lame the movie would be if it were filmed in a conventional manner.

In the third act the script does give Manny several ‘author’s message’ philosophical speeches, but they work fairly well. We like the idea that somebody is giving some thought to what all this mayhem might mean, even if it’s a sticky gum-wad about man’s eternal struggle for freedom. Manny is both a mad dog in search of an apocalypse, and a tortured soul telling Buck that the most beautiful thing in the world would be a menial job that offered peace and anonymity. When Sara speaks the word ‘animal’ again, Manny gets all up in her face, ready to kill — and then says simply that he’s something worse than an animal: ‘human.’ It’s almost like the, ‘Are we not men?’ plea from the classic Island of Lost Souls. Voight was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy and won the same with the Golden Globes, so his performance seems to have hit the right notes. We also admire an ending that allows Runaway Train to dodge exploitation fireworks, and opt for an art film vibe. I don’t recall anybody feeling cheated by the ending.

Runaway Train became a moderate hit, which for Cannon Films was the equivalent of a worldwide blockbuster. I like it mostly because it allowed Andrei Konchalovsky to proceed to my favorite of his films, Shy People. It’s an expensive, Louisiana-shot drama of no particular genre, which never would have been made otherwise. Cannon ground out hundreds of awful movies, but also a few gems.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Runaway Train is a great transfer. I’ve seen this picture previously only on crummy old cable TV prints. Trying to squeeze extra color out of the images, the show looked as if it had been colorized. The fine transfer here replicates the subdued color that manages to make the Northern forests look simultaneously lush and brutal. It also makes those special effects with people clinging to the train seem nigh- flawless. This is the first time I’ve noticed the soundtrack, a heavy synthesizer job that works extremely well — unlike the synth noodlings that were slathered over so much Cannon product. A trailer is included as well.

David Del Valle hosts a commentary with C. Courtney Joyner and actor Eric Roberts, who remembers the film well and happily shares stories of its making. Roberts likes to talk about Jon Voight and particularly the way Voight was ‘beefed up’ to look like a bruiser when he was actually tall and skinny. We get lots of good filmic info and background. I’d like to catch up with more details about the filming of all those effects — I think I skipped over an American Cinematographer article once without reading it. When Del Valle asks Roberts about the effects, there’s not much the actor can say except, ‘that’s movie magic!’

I read Julie Kirgo’s liner note insert after writing my review. She has a better handle on some of the personnel connections in Runaway Train, and also offers more insight into its philosophical underpinnings, which she rightly says are there to bolster the action. Now Twilight Time has two of the better train movies ever made, as this show joins a classic by John Frankenheimer, The Train. Its original 3,000 units were a complete sell-out, but TT has managed a reissue day and date with Runaway Train.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Runaway Train Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, commentary with Eric Roberts, David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner; trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 14, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.