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Runaway Train – film review

January 30, 2014


runaway train - desperation

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker. Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Jon Voight,     Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, John P. Ryan, T.K. Carter and Kenneth McMillan. Year of release: 1985. Running time: 111 minutes.

A pair of escaped convicts become trapped aboard a runaway train after the driver suffers a heart attack. Hurtling through the Alaskan wilderness, the desperate fugitives are pursued by a relentless prison warden determined to foil their bid for freedom at any cost.

Jon Voight plays Oscar ‘Manny’ Manheim; an inspiration to the inmates of Stonehaven prison; a man who has been welded into his cell for three years after several escape attempts. When a court order is filed to have him released from his cell on humanitarian grounds, and an attempt on his life is thwarted, Manny conducts a daring escape with help from Buck (Eric Roberts) a younger convict who idolizes him. Despite his indifference towards Buck, Manny begrudgingly allows him to tag along – so long as he doesn’t slow him down and the two trek out across the wintery wilds of a snowbound Alaskan wilderness to hitch a ride on a train which will carry them to freedom. Unfortunately for the pair, the train they stowaway aboard (four locomotive units coupled together) – is soon hurtling out of control with seemingly     no way of stopping it.

runaway train - ranken on ladder

Following in the wake of Maria’s Lovers with Nastassia Kinski, Runaway Train is the second of five American features helmed by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky – the others being Duet For One with Julie Andrews and Alan Bates, Shy People with Jill Clayburgh and Barbara Hershey and Tango & Cash starring Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone.

It began as a screenplay in the 1960s by noted Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai) and was conceived to be his first English language movie – but failed to eventuate. The screenplay was then optioned by producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan and reworked by Djordje Milicevic and Paul Zindel when helmer Andrei Konchalovsky was hired to direct. The script was then further reworked by celebrated ex-con turned crime writer Eddie Bunker (Straight Time); his own familiarity with penal life clearly providing a thruthfulness to the prison setting which opens the film. Bunker also has a small cameo as one of Manny’s convict buddies.

Jon Voight and Eric Roberts give the performances of their careers – both being nominated for Oscars for their roles and Rebecca De Mornay (best remembered as Lana in Risky Business) is virtually unrecognizable here as a grubby-faced rail worker trapped on the train along with the escapees. John P. Ryan (best known as the father in It’s Alive) plays the obsessed prison warden Ranken, determined to recapture Manny at any cost. Other notable cast members include T.K. Carter (Nauls from     John Carpenter’s The Thing) as a harried train controller and Kenneth McMillan (Baron Harkonnen from David Lynch’s Dune) as his overbearing boss.

john voight eric roberts runaway train

As played by Voight; Manny is clearly an unfeeling sociopath who, with scant regard for anyone else – has no qualms in manipulating others for his own personal gain. And likewise, the same could be said of Ranken – who equally displays sociopathic traits in his relentless pursuit of the fugitives. Buck, on the other hand, is just plain dumb – a punk easily taken advantage of by the hero he aspires to emulate. The character of Sara, the rail worker also trapped aboard the train, isn’t merely just a source of exposition to do with the workings of the train – but she also operates       as the voice of reason when it comes to Manny’s mistreatment of Buck and it is ultimately she who forces Manny to question his selfish behaviour and search within himself for some semblance of compassion. In essence, this is the story of a man who believes himself to be worse than an animal – who, when forced into a corner     by circumstance; redeems himself by discovering his humanity.

The train itself could easily be considered a character in this movie. A mechanical beast – big, black and filthy; uncaring of the human beings clinging precariously to     its flanks, as it barrels forth through an icy wasteland towards inevitable doom. The action sequences involving the train are thrillingly-staged.

The cinematography by British lenser Alan Hume BSC (Eye Of The Needle, Return Of The Jedi, Lifeforce) is suitably gritty and perfectly captures the frigid isolation       of the Alaskan wilderness and the unashamably muscular score by Trevor Jones (Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, Dark City) is one of his most memorable – being an eclectic fusion of hard-driving drum beats, big brassy fanfare, operatic choral flourishes and funky slap bass guitar elements, with some eastern influences     thrown in for good measure.

This is less like your typically glossy mid-80s action flick and more like a gritty thriller from the seventies – and this visceral grittiness clearly has much to do with the director’s own Soviet sensibilities. Unapologetic in its depiction of violence, there     is an unflinching honesty in the way the characters are portrayed.

Runaway Train is one of the truly great forgotten films of the 80s and is well overdue for rediscovery. It is an intense and exciting experience – a character-driven, edge-of-your-seat thriller; featuring terrific performances from all involved and comes highly recommended.

5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

  1. Nice review, Greg. I love this movie. It feels like one of those stories that’s always been around, waiting for someone to hack it out of the ice. Mythical and grand, but also intimate and human.


    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers Graham! And wow – nicely said – the mythical quality is definitely one of the things I love about this movie. And I’d love to see this film rediscovered and re-released (on the big screen) and re-appreciated in the same way as William Friedkin’s Sorcerer – another film I completely adore. 🙂


      • nial westwood permalink

        Both Sorcerer & Runaway Train are amazing simmilar character driven action films.


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