he Film: 5/5
Three years after being welded in his cell for attempting to escape Alaska's Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison twice, career criminal Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) has won a court battle to be released back into the general population. He knows that the prison's assistant warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who has carried a serious grudge against Manny for years, will try to have him killed or pushed into escaping once he's released. After barely surviving an attack by a prisoner put up to it by Ranken Manny decides to chance busting out of Stonehaven, except that this time he doesn't intend to be taken alive. Accompanying him is Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts), a cocksure boxer who has been doing time at Stonehaven for statutory rape and considers Manny his idol. The two convicts make a treacherous journey through the Alaskan wilderness and covertly board a freight train to freedom, but when the train's engineer suffers a fatal heart attack and inadvertently damages the brakes it becomes a runaway engine of destruction quickly gaining speed. While technicians and authorities try to bring the train to a halt before it causes even more serious damage Manny and Buck look for ways to escape the train or slow it down with the help of engineer Sara (Rebecca DeMornay), also trapped on the runaway locomotive. With the out-of-control train on a collision course with a chemical plant and Ranken in pursuit from a helicopter Manny must decide if he's going to take the easy way to freedom or live up to the legendary reputation bestowed upon him by Buck and his fellow inmates.
Outside of a terrific yet dated music score from Trevor Jones that leans too heavily at times on wailing electric guitars and Casio noodling, Runaway Train is virtually indistinguishable from most of the major action movies released in the 1980's. It has very little common with the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando, and Die Hard. It's not gritty or flashy and doesn't sport a screenplay lumped to the margins with cringe-worthy one-liners and gratuitous violence and gore. Of course now I've always been a huge supporters of each and every one of those things, but Runaway Train doesn't need glorious excess to make an impact. It has spectacular action with purpose, gritty textured scenes, and acting that was so committed and accomplished that it was rewarded with Oscar nominations. Oh, and it has a train. A mean motherfucker of a train. The rage-fueled lovechild of King Kong, Godzilla, Talos from Jason and the Argonauts, and Satan of trains. The kind of train you have nightmares about and don't you goddamn dare deny it my friend.
Runaway Train is - and I tend to say this about a lot of films but I always mean it - a stone cold classic of cinema. This is one of the best movies released during a decade not exactly renowned for treasuring character and subtlety over flash and dazzle, and it stands as one of the modern greats of the action genre to this day. It was distributed by the Cannon Group, those notorious purveyors of high calorie celluloid sludge that killed your brain cells and clotted your colon (and you loved it, didn't you pervert?), during a period of the upstart exploitation studio's history when Cannon kings Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus desired both upscale industry respectability and blockbuster box office grosses. Those two things typically don't mix and Cannon's pursuit of what could not be easily obtained yielded middling financial returns and a unique slate of art house oddities like Tough Guys Don't Dance and Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear and instantly irrelevant B-flicks like Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo and Death Wish 3.
The story for Runaway Train was the brainchild of Japanese filmmaking icon Akira Kurosawa. Inspired by reading of an incident involving a real runaway train in Rochester, New York in 1962 the Seven Samurai/Hidden Fortress director fleshed out his ideas into a script he co-wrote with Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima. The finished screenplay was later adapted into English by Academy Award nominee Sidney Carroll (The Hustler) because Kurosawa intended for Runaway Train to be his first American feature. In a series of firsts for the director the proposed featured was to be filmed in color and 70mm and supported by six-track sound and actors like Lee Marvin, Peter Falk, and Henry Fonda were discussed for the leads. The film was set to go into production in the fall of 1966 but lousy weather conditions and Kurosawa's issues with Carroll's adaptation lead to the project being shelved. The director never returned to the movie once he decided to join the Japanese end of production on 20th Century Fox's dramatic recreation of the Pearl Harbor attack Tora! Tora! Tora!, a job he ended up losing anyway three weeks into filming over battles with studio executives over every issue imaginable.
Almost twenty years later the script for Kurosawa's unrealized version of Runaway Train was rewritten by Serbian scribe Djordje Milicevic (John Huston's 1981 WWII soccer drama Victory, American novelist and playwright Paul Zindel (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds), and crime writer Edward Bunker. Best known to modern audiences for playing Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's explosive debut film Reservoir Dogs, Bunker was for many years a career criminal who spend a large portion of life in various prisons and reformatories. His experiences lead him to become a novelist with such hard-hitting and authentic books as No Beast So Fierce (made into the 1978 film Straight Time starring Dustin Hoffman) and Animal Factory (adapted for the screen in 2000 under the direction of Steve Buscemi) to his credit. At one time he was the younger inmate ever imprisoned in San Quentin State Prison. I'm not entirely sure which screenwriter contributed what to Runaway Train, but the dialogue and action in the prison scenes bear the dank, hard-boiled realism you could find in Bunker's novels. Plus, Oscar Manheim is a quintessential Edward Bunker character, the aging criminal who has spent so many years on the wrong side of the law that his criminal life has come to define him completely as a person. Every line from Manny's lips is the voice of a man who has been to the edge and back, a man who sees through the idiotic posturing of his wannabe outlaw peers and experiences no compunction when he calls them on their bullshit role playing.
The late acting legend Marlon Brando once wrote about how much he loved Runaway Train and empathized with the character of Manny. Artists like Brando and Bob Dylan bristle at the notion that they are universally beloved icons of the counterculture. They would rather be seen as human beings committed to doing what they love best but not afraid to tell it like it is. In one of the film’s best scenes and possibly Voight’s finest hour as an actor, Manny breaks down after enduring to far too much of Buck’s cool-headed bravado and tells him in plain and brutally honest language about the harsh realities that await any convicted felon once they return to the outside world, particularly having to work low-paying and demeaning jobs designed to crush their spirits. Employers who tell you that they can’t discriminate against a potential hire because of their criminal record is just pulling the wool over their eyes. The options back in the world for a person who has served time in prison are slim and downright insulting and no matter how low or high the severity of the crime they committed may have been they will never stop repaying their debt to society. That’s the bleak truth behind the outlaw facade of most modern day criminals; even the ones who wish to go straight often find themselves falling back into lives of crime because they have no other choice, other than to just die.
That scene isn’t just the best Voight has ever played, but Runaway Train contains the finest performance of the celebrated actor‘s long career. The boyish-looking actor rocketed to stardom with justly lauded performances in Midnight Cowboy, Catch-22, Deliverance, and his Oscar-winning turn as a paralyzed Vietnam veteran in Hal Ashby’s polarizing drama Coming Home. To play the role of Manny Voight had to immerse himself fully in the character until he no longer resembled the handsome young movie star who rose to prominence in the era when the New Hollywood temporarily took over the film industry. Sporting a face of scars and ragged, greasy facial hair, a mouth full of rotting teeth (a few cased in gold), and an occasional puzzling regional dialect from a region I can’t quite place, Voight looks so convincing as the hardened career crook and misanthrope Manny that at times it’s like the character has possessed the actor. He invests sympathy, crude wit, and a pitch black core of darkness in the deep wells of Manny’s decaying soul. His performance is one of the rawest and most committed I have ever witnessed in all of my years watching movies. The shame of it though is that is also marked Voight’s personal peak as an actor. In the decades that followed he would give some good and decent performances in movies of varying quality - plus some horrible performances in a few of the worst movies ever made - but he would never be as good as he was in Runaway Train ever again.
Playing Manny's hapless, sycophantic young follower Buck, Eric Roberts was rightfully lionized by the Academy for his performance by nominating him for a Best Supporting Actor gong. His is a much flashier and bombastic portrayal than the more controlled turn given by Voight because he is essentially playing the kind of mouthy blowhard that makes Manny's leathery flesh crawl. But there is a natural sweetness to the character; after all, he is pretty much a dumb kid when his macho armor is stripped away completely. The moment when he and Manny get into a fight as the train hurtles them toward certain doom rather than the freedom they both long desired and Buck sees for the first time that his idol is nothing more than another cold-blooded felon is beautifully played by both actors. It is a heartbreaking scene that perfectly encapsulates the underlying them of Runaway Train....
What is the point of risking death for a chance at freedom when you are already dead inside?
Completing the triumvirate is Rebecca DeMornay as the young engineer who becomes the key to Manny and Buck's safety as well as their salvation. Though she is credited as Sara her character is never referred to by name in the film - she probably was in the screenplay - but that doesn't mean that she is deprived of characteristics to play. Her mesmerizing beauty partially obscured by a thin layer of dirt and grime, DeMornay shines through by playing the one person trapped on the train who is a genuinely decent human being. Sara also functions as a surrogate for the audience despite not coming into the story until it's more than halfway over, and the way she views their life-threatening dilemma and the struggles of both of the escaped prisoners is pragmatic and honest. She never considers the men a threat to her life (not on the surface anyway) because she is quick to understand that Manny and Buck may be sick perverts and killers but they're the least of her problems. The uneasy alliance she forms with them serves the film well on many levels with DeMornay digging deep into a sketchily-defined character to find the soul and intelligence that drives Sara and her reluctance to pass judgment on the convicts. Hers is a performance that doesn't get enough credit though it should because it's pretty damn good for the meager amount of screen time the actress gets to make an impression.
The supporting characters are further fleshed out by a sea of engaging faces and personalities. Top honors in the B players goes to the late John P. Ryan, a familiar presence from Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, Larry Cohen's It's Alive, Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks, and many other memorable films and countless television guest appearances. Always good for an intense (sometimes overly intense) performance, Ryan is given one of his meatiest roles as the determined and slightly demented assistant warden Ranken. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to compare the character with Melville's Captain Ahab, in single-minded pursuit of the great beast he refuses to ever again slip through his fingers. Ranken is a sadist but in a sad way he is achingly human and one of few who sees Manny for the deluded bastard he really is, though he is also quite delusional in that he doesn't see that the more he tries to kill or degrade Manny the stronger he makes the criminal feel and look to the other inmates at Stonehaven. Ryan is stern, funny, angry, and sometimes a bit terrifying. Shame that the rest of his career was spent playing a long line-up of interchangeable authority figures, although he did play a sympathetic gangster in Lana and Andy Wachowski's 1996 directorial debut Bound - the last movie he ever did. The cast is rounded out by reliable performers like Kyle T. Heffner, T.K. Carter (a long way from Outpost 31), Kenneth McMillian, and Carmen Filpi. Screenwriter Bunker has a few effective little scenes as Manny's friend and fellow inmate Jonah, and Danny Trejo makes his acting debut in a bit part as a prisoner Buck bests in a boxing match.
Alan Hume was the director of photography on Runaway Train. His eye for gorgeous, painterly compositions has been put to good use in several James Bond adventures, countless Carry On pictures, Return of the Jedi, and Supergirl among others. For Konchalowsky's movie Hume has given each scene a gritty, wintry texture that brings every scene to full life. Through the cinematographer's lens the titular train grows to resemble a steel-and-wire demonic entity with each collision. Trevor Jones' score I mentioned at the start of this review seems too reliant on 1980's music tropes like synthesizers and the "crying guitar". Regardless it's a terrific blast of propulsive music, but Jones' work is best during the more haunting and emotional moments of the story when the score seems to provide a voice in the face of overpowering silence. An arrangement of Antonio Vivaldi's epic choral composition "Gloria in D Major" serves as the unofficial theme for the film and plays over the end credits, concluding Runaway Train on a stirring note bound to bring about tears from even the toughest nut.
A note about this release: the version of Runaway Train presented on this Blu-ray is completely uncut and restores a brief shot of a police officer falling under the train during the final pursuit that you cannot find on any Region 1 DVD releases.
Last year a print of Runaway Train that had been remastered in high-definition by current rights holder MGM premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. That transfer is presented on this Blu-ray by Arrow Video. At this juncture it has become cliche to state that a movie released on an Arrow Blu looks and sound the best it ever has on home video, but that doesn’t make it any less when I say that it is highly doubtful Runaway Train ever had a better presentation since its theatrical release. Even then I’m sure it would have been no match for the new HD print. The transfer is framed in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio and the restoration is remarkable. The muted color palette truly brings out the grungy, oppressive atmosphere of the gulag-like Stonehaven Prison, the desolate Alaskan tundras, and the interior and exterior shots of the battered train. Grain is present but has reduced to barely necessary levels, and the image quality is very clear with gorgeous sharpened detail. Hume’s cinematography absolutely shines.
The only audio option Arrow has included is an English PCM 2.0 stereo track. It’s a bustling, rumbling mix that only occasionally needs manual volume adjustment during the quieter dialogue scenes. Since most of the dialogue is spoken at medium or high volume - there’s a lot of shouting in this film - this never becomes problematic. The sound effects mix for the action scenes is strong and balanced and doesn’t cause distortion in your speakers. The best way to watch this movie is at a few notches below top volume with the lights off. English subtitles have also been included.
I was hoping desperately for an audio commentary or some contemporary input from actor Danny Trejo, who made his debut in this film, to bless Runaway Train's Blu-ray debut, but my dashed hopes at the lack of one were quickly lifted by the presence of four brand new HD retrospective interviews, running nearly ninety minutes total.
The first brings director Andrei Konchalovsky back to recount his experiences making the film in "Running on Empty" (16 minutes). With the brief time on hand he talks about working with Golan and Globus, being brought to the U.S. by his eventual star Voight (who Konchalovsky later had to convince to take the role of Manny), his contentious working relationship with Eric Roberts, and the film's reception by critics and audiences. In the last minutes he shares his thoughts about Cannon's downfall and an amusing story about when Runaway Train made its grand premiere in New York City by playing in a single theater that catered exclusively to films imported from India.
Jon Voight then takes the spotlight for "From Thespian to Fugitive" (38 minutes), the longest extra feature on the disc by far. Voight is wonderfully candid but respectful as he shares just about every memory he had regarding starring in Runaway Train from the moment he was first approached by Konchalovsky to the mixed reactions by his children James and Angelina (Jolie, naturally) when he lost the Academy Award for Best Actor to William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman. The discussion sticks mostly to the subject of acting in the film and there are some enticing stories about how he developed his memorable monologue based on conversations he had with an actual imprisoned criminal, performing stunts (he points out how the production utilized rear projection effects for the exterior scenes on the train and I swear to J.R. "Bob" Dobbs that they had me completely fooled, and I can usually point out those effects in a movie), and acting for Steadicam. He praises everyone he worked with on Runaway Train from his director (character traits from whom may have made their way sneakily into Voight's performance) to his co-stars Roberts and DeMornay to cinematographer Hume and implies that Cannon Films' infamous reputation in the industry may or may not have resulted in the movie winning none of the three Academy Awards it was nominated for.
Voight's companion in action Eric Roberts is next up in "Sweet and Savage" (16 minutes) and the veteran actor has his own set of amusing stories from starring in Runaway Train. According to Roberts the character of Buck was originally written to be a New York street tough type but he felt that Buck's statutory rape charge would not make him as unlikable if he were more of a naive country bumpkin. His opinion of Voight is very favorable but he did not get along with director Konchalovsky as well (a fact the director himself verifies in his own interview) though both men grew to respect each other as artists. Roberts closes out the featurette with a funny story about how Cannon snatched his Oscar nomination certificate and displayed it in their offices, much to the actor's consternation when he visited the studio some years later to discuss another project.
Character actor Kyle T. Heffner, who played the beleaguered railway dispatcher who mounts a last ditch effort to keep the train from causing any further damage than it already has, is interviewed for "The Calm Before the Chaos" (17 minutes). He didn't share any screen time with Voight, Roberts, or DeMornay but he still has his own fond memories of working on the movie. I liked it best when he talked about basing his character on a Chihuahua and filming the scene where John P. Ryan’s character shoves his head into a toilet his character has already urinated in (you might be surprised to find out that really isn’t pee).
A theatrical trailer presented in high-definition that is scored with music from another 1985 Cannon release, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (coming this fall to Blu-ray from Arrow!), and a Trailers from Hell segment with director Rod Lurie (the recent Straw Dogs remake) sharing some factoids as he watches the trailer that will be of absolutely no surprise to anyone familiar with Runaway Train close out the video supplements.
Arrow Video has done another outstanding packaging job on their releases with a reversible cover sleeve that features new artwork and the original poster art and another winning Criterion Collection-style collector’s booklet containing a new in-depth essay on Runaway Train by Michael Brooke, an interview with production designer Stephen Marsh conducted by Calum Waddell, and a reprint of the 1964 Life Magazine article “The Runaway Train” that first inspired Kurosawa to develop the story as a motion picture. Rare behind-the-scenes and production stills illustrate the book.
A DVD copy featuring a standard definition transfer of the film and all of the extras from the Blu-ray is also included.
Runaway Train has never been denied the respect and adulation it deserved, but in my opinion it deserved a lot more. With a superb new HD transfer and some terrific, informative supplements Arrow Video's Blu-ray release will help this evocative and gripping classic adventure live on forever. I cannot recommend enough that you catch this train immediately