But wait, it has regularly been advised, this one is actually good. It’s true, Runaway Train (1985) is the Cannon Group production most often cited as a genuinely excellent movie, not a cult hit, not a niche genre oddity, not an ironic fan favorite. It is exciting and technically accomplished, well-acted and well-written. Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and produced by the two-headed Cannon monster that was Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, this stirring 1985 thriller is, as film historian David Del Valle has noted, “the jewel in Cannon’s crown.”
Runaway Train departs from a rigid maximum-security prison confined in frozen Alaskan solitude. It’s a setting as cold and grim and barren as such a place sounds like it would be. There, notorious bank robber Oscar “Manny” Manheim (Jon Voight) receives word that a humanitarian court case has granted his release from a welded, secluded cell, where he has been simmering for three years, back into the general penitentiary population. The occasion, in tandem with a general loathing of Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), provokes a series of riotous events and provides the opportunity for Manny’s escape (his third such attempt). After inmates ignite the facility in flaming rebellion, further kindled by a contentious Ranken interview on television, Manny slips away. He is joined, much to his dismay, by exasperating hanger-on Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts), a statutory rapist who, like many in the prison, idolizes Manny as something of a celebrity con. Greased up and wrapped in plastic, the insulated duo make their way through the facility’s subterranean cesspool—“What’s a matter?” Manny asks his disgusted compatriot, “You never been in a sewer before?”—and trudge the snowy landscape. Arriving at a nearby rail station, the two hop aboard an outbound train, just as said train’s engineer has a heart attack and tumbles from the rushing transport. So, there they are: cold, tired, pursued by the authorities, fighting their inner and shared demons, and stranded on an out-of-control train with no driver. “Boy,” says the locomotive’s only other passenger, a surprise hostler named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), “I guess you guys picked the wrong train.”
Based on a 1965 screenplay written by, of all people, Akira Kurosawa, in collaboration with Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima, the revamped script is by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and Edward Bunker, himself a former convict, who also wrote the source novels for Straight Time (1978) and Animal Factory (2000), and, perhaps most famously, appeared as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Aside from some amusingly salty dialogue, of which there is plenty—“Wipe that piss off your face. I don’t want to hear anymore crap out of you”—the Runaway Train screenplay is noteworthy for how thoroughly it establishes and progresses not just the dominant action on the train, but the intersecting narrative tracks surrounding it. This includes Ranken’s obsessive pursuit of Manny and the drama unfolding at central command, where dispatchers Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) and Dave Prince (T. K. Carter), alongside secretary Ruby (Stacey Pickren), are just everyday folks trying to do their job. As things go from bad to worse—the train’s brakes burn off and Superintendent Eddie McDonald (Kenneth McMillan) starts breathing down everyone’s neck—the strategic scope of the picture surpasses its ostensible single setting and its two primary protagonists. Runaway Train shrewdly fuses a string of collaborative and combative storylines into a cohesive whole. It’s likely the most thoughtful script to ever accompany a Cannon production.
Absent from Kurosawa’s story, which began as the fleeing leads first reach the train, the introductory sequences in prison are crucial to the anarchic spirit of Runaway Train, which goes a long way to inform men like Manny and Buck. The initially oppressive milieu, where pent-up aggression explodes in a flurry of unrest, prompts the realization of where they’ve been, literally and figuratively, and what it is they’re running from (where they’re running to is another matter). Referred to by Ranken as “pieces of human waste,” the irate inmates rally around Manny, exploiting the cause célèbre of his disputed incarceration to demonstrate a camaraderie forged by hard-earned blood, sweat, and reverence. No doubt drawing on Bunker’s real-world experience (and watch for fellow ex-con Danny Trejo in his film debut), Runaway Train opens with the visceral depiction of a criminal code, where Manny is attacked, there is swift retaliation, and the ensuing violence is rapid, graphic, and instinctive: a punitive stabbing, the flinging of blood onto an assailant’s face, a man holding in his spilling entrails. It’s no wonder, then, that when Manny is unleashed from his inimical confinement, he is a hardened and jaded, a violent force of vengeance and mercenary determination.
As played by a guttural, gruff Jon Voight, decked out in an engorged bodysuit to augment his bulk, Manny is a temperamental, capable, and physical contrast to Eric Roberts’ Buck, who, though he is a boxer, appears incessantly anxious and petulant, and when he fumbles around shoeless and cold, is an ill-equipped counterpoint to Manny’s primed severity. In other words, among its more evident genre trappings, Runaway Train also has all the makings of a buddy-movie scenario, with one character resiliently no-nonsense and another prone to imprudent antics. Although there is an inkling of interest in Buck’s wellbeing (born from a sincere concern or simply his unwillingness to babysit), Manny is content to weather his independence alone. But for his part, the talkative, oftentimes maddening Buck wants nothing more than to be partners with his venerated companion, even when Manny takes a ruthless turn and Buck must express his own bold fortitude (should a remake ever come around the bend, this role is screaming for Matthew McConaughey). While Buck dreams of girls and frivolous parties, Manny is cynical and pragmatic, stressing the importance of conformity when free, and tolerating the workaday drudgeries of such freedom. Manny scoffs at the mere mention of miracles, he has no expectations, good or bad, and he relies on nobody: “One must count on one’s self,” he asserts in a statement of the film’s sovereign thematic core.
Despite these character conflicts, though, and regardless of Manny’s aloof worldview, there is an instant, mounting appreciation for the underdog plight of these durable combatants. This is largely due to the efficient potency of Voight and Roberts, who authenticate their characters early and seamlessly add layers of revelatory development. Sara, more or less tacked on as an apparent if necessary afterthought, nevertheless proves her own worth, and De Mornay communicates, as best she can under the circumstances, an emotional range not seen elsewhere in the film, with sadness, sympathy, and heart. She is even permitted her own moment of unrecognized bravery. The provisional team works together well to their mutual benefit, cementing an endearing, albeit unsteady allegiance. By the time Runaway Train comes to its exhilarating end, the raw physicality seen throughout, conveyed especially well by Voight’s voracious performance, meets manic extremes of exertion and endurance, of red, frostbitten faces and debilitating wounds.
It’s undoubtably tempting to think of what Kurosawa would have done with the property, but with financial issues, linguistic barriers, and an incompatible methodology, it was simply not meant to be (he had a similarly souring involvement on 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, which he left just a few weeks into production). He had also intended Runaway Train, or whatever it was titled at the time, to be his first color film, and a look at Ran, also released in 1985, gives some indication of what that could have been like. In any event, Runaway Train became Russian émigré Konchalovsky’s second American feature, after Maria’s Lovers (1984), another Cannon production, and it was a resounding success. Not only did the film garner a slot in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, but Voight and Roberts were nominated for Academy Awards, as was editor Henry Richardson, and Voight won a Golden Globe for Best Actor. Against the steely terrain, with icy waters and swelling snowbanks, the film hurtles forth with an admirable, ceaseless momentum; the film is all forward motion all the time. In one of Cannon’s most effectively symbiotic collaborations, Konchalovsky’s direction, Alan Hume’s cinematography, and Richardson’s editing combine to amplify an incessant impression of perilous movement. As the train pushes along upwards of 90 miles per hour, ramming through a train-on-train collision, skimming tunnels, blowing by trees, and barreling over rickety bridges, the enveloping volatility is put into awesome perspective.
If there is one lingering aspect of Kurosawa’s involvement, it would be in Runaway Train’s lofty Shakespearian undertones, most obviously summarized in a quote from “Richard III,” which still remains at the end of the film: “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast.” Zoomorphic allusions are repeatedly emphasized, in the bestial behavior of the men and in the “wild animal” (Eddie’s words) that is the heedless train, a parallel vehicle for the rampant path of Manny, who is compulsively defiant to the end. Donning a sweatshirt emblazoned with a bald eagle, an on-point symbol for his own projected independence and a noble sign of his final redemption, Manny is ultimately awarded a fleeting moment of staggering liberation, expressed in an extraordinary composition of railway deliverance. As Konchalovsky notes, “The train is a symbol for whatever you want it to be. It can be viewed as a prison because they can’t get out of it, or considered as freedom because they escaped from prison on it, or considered as our civilization running out of control because no one can stop it.” Those are three interpretations. That there is even more than one is partly why Runaway Train rises above the average Cannon submission.