US 1985, 110m, Cannon Films
Blu-Ray: Arrow Films (UK) - Cert 15
Hardened convict Manny (Jon Voight) has been kept locked in his prison cell for the last three years, until a government order is issued to allow him back with the other prisoners. The somewhat sadistic prison warden Rankin (John P. Ryan) is looking for an excuse to dispatch with Manny once and for all.
After a failed attempt on his life, Manny hatches an escape plan (his third), assisted by fellow convict and prison boxing champ Buck (Eric Roberts), who on the spur of the moment decides to make a break for it with Manny. Having made the break, they eventually reach the railroad and jump onto a train, unaware that it's about to set out on a runaway course with no driver, no brakes, and just them and a female railway worker (Rebecca DeMornay) on board...
If ever a film was blighted by association, it was this one. Its makers, Cannon Films, and producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, were more readily associated with action junk starring Chuck Norris or Jean Claude Van Damme. One look at the trailer for Runaway Train tells you that, even after they quoted some of the strong reviews, Cannon really weren't sure how to market or distribute the film, giving the impression of yet another gung-ho action movie. It is something else entirely.
It's a breakneck, edge of the seat ride for sure, but it's also an absorbing character study. It's just as much about the relationship between the two prisoners and their unwitting travelling companion as it is about a train heading to possible disaster and the attempts by both passengers and other parties to prevent it. The on screen action is just as much about the conflict in the claustrophobic confines of the train cabin, as it is about some spectacularly staged railway sequences through Alaska.
There are faults. Some synthesiser-based sections of the score do feel somewhat dated, and it's such a contrast to the stunning use of Vivaldi's Gloria in D Major at the film's climax that you wish they had taken a more orchestral approach to the music throughout. Also, the scenes inside the railway control room do feel like they have strayed in from a traditional Cannon action pic and they both jar with and disrupt the atmosphere created by the train sequences.
Fortunately, the film's considerable merits far outweigh any deficiencies. Both Voight and Roberts give intense and uncompromising performances, and were both rewarded with Oscar nominations. The chances of any Cannon production actually winning an Oscar were unlikely, but Voight was presented with a Golden Globe for his efforts.
Alan Hume's cinematography is simply stunning, and demonstrates some of the best use of a snow-scape ever committed to celluloid. Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky uses the landscape more like his homeland, and makes this remote outpost of the USA look almost alien.
Despite the Oscar nominations and some incredibly positive press, Cannon only secured a limited release for December 1985. By the time the release went wider, the holiday season had passed and the post-Christmas cinema slump left Runaway Train to struggle. After taking just short of $8m in the US and $9.5m worldwide, against a budget of $9m, it was released to video by late summer. It deserved much better.
Like a head on collision between a traditional action extravaganza and an arthouse existentialist piece, and quite unlike anything else you are likely to see, Runaway Train just might be one of the most underrated films of the 1980's. It certainly has one of my favourite endings.
Blu-Ray Notes: I'm sure people must be getting fed up of me praising Arrow Films' releases, but they've done it again. A truly brilliant HD transfer, marred only by a couple of short scenes where optical zooming on the frame was used in the original cut, and the quality of the transfer makes it all too obvious. The original stereo soundtrack sounds great, and there are fascinating interviews with Voight, Roberts, Konchalovsky and supporting actor Kyle T. Heffner which shed an interesting light on the film's prolonged gestation (it was originally going to be an Akira Kurosawa film!), its production and its release.
Original Theatrical Trailer:
FOOTNOTE: Perhaps buoyed by their Oscar nominations, Cannon would produce several more prestigious films over the next few years, utilising talents such as Jean-Luc Godard and Norman Mailer. Hollywood, however would never take them seriously. On the verge of collapse, Golan and Globus sold Cannon in 1989.