An Eighties action movie with the cheesy B-movie title, produced by low-budget schlock masters Cannon Films, featuring a cast including straight-to-video stalwarts Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay...
Runaway Train seems like it could be easy to dismiss, but the fact that it was based on an original screenplay by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai), was directed by arthouse darling Andrei Konchalovsky, and was nominated for three Oscars (including acting nods for Roberts and Jon Voight) suggests that there’s much more to it than its trashy origins.
Runaway Train takes its high concept premise - two escaped convicts find themselves trapped on a runaway locomotive heading to an explosive dead end - and turns it into a brutal, relentless action thriller-cum-existential tragedy.
Director Konchalovsky uses the image of the hulking metal train, ceaselessly racing towards destruction through icy landscapes as a metaphor for its self-destructive antiheroes’ doomed journey towards their inevitable demise, unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects.
The film is powered by Jon Voight’s mesmerising Oscar-nominated performance as legendary career criminal Manny Mandhaim, whose soul has been twisted by years of solitary confinement and systematic abuse by his nemesis, the brutal prison warden Rankin (John P. Ryan). Voight transforms himself into a character just a few levels above an animal, with a deep, guttural voice and terrifying thousand-yard stare. Manny is a fascinating character to build an action thriller around; he is no two-dimensional hero but a fully realised character. Voight’s portrayal alternates between feral rage as his violent nature bubbles to the surface and moments of clarity about his place in the universe.
In one exchange, a great example of the dialogue’s excellent tough guy poetry, De Mornay accuses him of being an animal. “No, worse! Human!” he retorts, revealing both the character’s and the movie’s bleak worldview. Eric Roberts plays the other prisoner in this duo, Buck, a younger, dumber acolyte of Manny whose fumbling attempts to impress are at once comedic and tragic, as he slowly realises that perhaps Manny is not the hero he thought he was.
Roberts’s mannered performance has aged less successfully than Voight’s, but his annoying tics and macho posturing fits the character: a wannabe hard man playing at the role of a tough guy, one that melts away in the face of Manny, a truly terrifying figure. Konchalovsky utilises an almost documentary like approach to proceedings; the bleak, wintry setting and the cold blue steel cinematography matching the brutality of the characters’ interior lives.
The pre-CGI era action sequences are palpably tactile, with stunning examples of old-school stunt work. There are some flaws: the cutaways to the increasingly fraught railway operators seem to have wandered in form a lesser, broader film compared to the dark psychodrama of the prisoners’ story and De Mornay’s character is given little to do except deliver exposition. However, these flaws do fade away during the film’s final act.
With Runaway Train, Konchalovsky has taken a run-of-the mill, high-concept action film and turned it into Shakespearean tragedy.
By Craig Adgie