From The Parallax Review Vaults: Runaway Train (1985)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Runaway Train was for the “Cannon Corner” column of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.

My first thought when I settled in and started watching Runaway Train could be considered an odd one. I was doing my usual routine while watching the opening credits, taking note of actors, writers, and producers I recognized. Some of them I was glad to see, some of them not so much. Then an odd thing happened: I was reminded of a scene from Ghostbusters. Specifically, the scene where they are describing the chaos of what is about to rain down on the city. At one point, Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) exclaims, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” to illustrate this crazy, upside-down world that they are trying to avoid. For a few moments when Akira Kurosawa’s name popped up in the credits of a Golan-Globus production, I thought I was living in that crazy, upside-down world. I have no idea how a Kurosawa script landed in the Cannon realm, but I doubt that the original screenplay bore much resemblance to what ended up being committed to film. Still, you have to give credit to Golan and Globus for capitalizing on the opportunity to be associated with one of the titans of 20th century film, if only for a brief moment.

After this odd, disorienting experience, I gathered my wits and settled in for what turned out to be a hell of a crazy ride. Runaway Train is typical of Cannon fare in that it was obviously done on the cheap — just check out the unconvincing matte painting used for an establishing shot of the penitentiary. Also, like most of their action films, it seems to glory in its own brand of ultra-violence. But there’s something else going on here that really surprised me. Namely, despite the graphic violence and near-constant profanity, it felt a lot like the old Warner Brothers crime melodramas of the ’30s and early ’40s. The story of an angry criminal on the run from the law, it honestly wouldn’t take much tweaking of the characters to see James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the lead roles, as opposed to the less impressive duo of Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.

Manny (Voight) is a tough-as-nails convict doing time in an Alaska penitentiary. When the film opens, he has proved himself so adept at escaping, the sadistic warden, Ranken (the always terrific John P. Ryan), has had him locked up in solitary confinement for two straight years. This harsh stretch has made Manny a folk-hero to the other prisoners, particularly to naïve prison boxer, Buck (Roberts). Forced by a court order to free Manny from his confinement, Ranken immediately has him attacked by another prisoner. Although he takes a blade clean through the hand (achieved through a truly horrifying bit of practical effects that looks far more realistic than CGI could ever hope to), Manny survives, more intent on busting out than ever before.

And that’s just what Manny does. Aided by the star-struck Buck, they make a trip through the sewers to find themselves free men, but completely unprepared for the bitter cold and snows of an Alaska winter. Of course, the question remains: why was their escape from the prison so easy? Did Ranken look the other way, just so he would have the opportunity to hunt down and kill Manny?

Manny and Buck jump a train pulling multiple engine cars, but as fate would have it, the engineer keels over dead of a heart attack, pushing the throttle wide-open as he falls. When the emergency breaks fail and a collision with another train — conveniently not derailing it despite the force of the impact — jams the door leading from the second engine car to the first, the convicts find themselves hurtling along on a train that can’t be stopped. All the while, Ranken tracks the escaped convicts with the glee of a big-game hunter, certain that there is only one possible result.

Director Andrey Konchalovskiy is a veteran international filmmaker who has also directed theatre and opera across Europe. This could explain many of the over-the-top performances throughout the film. Voight sports a fu manchu mustache, wears prosthetic scars across one eye, and speaks with so much mush-mouthed intensity that he sounds like Michael Moriarty doing Hamlet in a dentist’s chair. He snarls, drools, and grandstands like a lion daring the zookeeper to come a little closer with his dinner. It’s not a good performance, but it’s never boring. Roberts matches him for excessive intensity, but his silly hick accent makes it hard to take him seriously. Still, he works well as a stupid kid who gets to see just how much of a “hero” Manny actually is. Ryan knocks his sadistic warden role out of the park. He’s only onscreen for maybe thirty minutes, but he owns every second of his appearance with an icy control and purely evil presence that shows him to be just as dangerous and obsessed as Manny.

While Konchalovskiy frees his cast to go as far over-the-top as they want, he maintains a fairly tight control over most everything else. The prison scenes in the first act are extraordinary. Although they deliver the same sights and scenes that have been portrayed in every prison movie ever made, the atmosphere that is captured in the film is absolutely suffocating. This makes the violence that much more brutal and feeds into the animalistic performance by Voight. The filmmakers seem to argue that Manny has been turned into a wild animal by the prison system, and it’s hard to argue that point while watching these scenes. This sense of claustrophobic anxiety is heightened on the train. Trapped in the small spaces of the cars, with the characters facing almost certain death, the performances start to fit in. Any hope of subtlety goes out the window, but the film only becomes better for it. A story about a personality too big to be caged, but too dangerous to be freed deserves a treatment that isn’t afraid to press down on the gas pedal when logic would say to brake. Thankfully, Konchalovskiy does just that.

Unfortunately, he makes two rather large mistakes. He constantly cuts away from the action to the railroad headquarters to show how the dispatchers are dealing with the crisis. Just one or two of these scenes are needed to show how further collisions are avoided, but the film goes to these sequences every five or ten minutes. Not only are they unnecessary, they’re boring with marginal acting on a cheap set. The other mistake is the introduction, nearly an hour into the film, of a railroad worker (Rebecca De Mornay) who is also stuck on the train. Ostensibly, her purpose is to show the humanity left in Buck and (to a lesser extent) Manny. But she only serves to distract from the main conflict of what will get Manny first, the train or the Warden?

Neither of these missteps spells doom for the film. Riding on the mostly excellent direction and a strong story that nails a perfect ending, Runaway Train is a visceral kick in the ass. It’s a brutal, surprisingly engrossing genre exercise that rarely compromises. Give it a look.

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