Runaway Train Review

Runaway Train is the product of an unlikely confluence of talents; a legendary Japanese film director, an award-winning Russian filmmaker, an ex-convict turned writer, an actor in the doldrums looking for a hit, and a couple of Israeli chancers turned movie moguls. That it should work at all seems unlikely. That it is actually very good is surely some kind of miracle.

Set in the desolation of Alaska, the film begins as a prison break melodrama in which vicious lifer Oscar ‘Manny’ Manheim (Voight), accompanied by neophyte convict Buck (Roberts) escapes from an insanely brutal jail ruled by Deputy Warden Ranken (Ryan). Following a punishing trek across the icy wastes, the pair come upon a remote railway yard where they board a train which consists of a locomotive and four carriages. But their hopes of freedom seem doomed when the driver collapses with a heart attack, inadvertently bypassing the dead man’s handle, and the train begins to career out of control.

The origins of Runaway Train are fascinating. It was based on a real incident which happened in 1962 in New York and was originally a script written by Akira Kurosawa who intended to make it both his colour and English language debut. As we know, this didn’t happen and the script hung around for the best part of a decade and a half until the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky got hold of it. The script was then adapted by the Serbian writer Djordje Milicevic and the American writer Paul Zindel. It was subsequently given a thorough going over by Edward Bunker, the ex-con whose novel No Beast So Fierce was made into the film Straight Time. Bunker claims that the finished script is substantially his own work and that he made changes such as changing Manny’s crime from the murder of his wife, claiming that a wife killer would never become a prison hero.

Andrei Konchalovsky may have seemed a strange choice for a balls-out action thriller. He was a highly respected director who had received the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1979 for his epic Siberiad. He arrived in America shortly afterwards where it was his good fortune to hook up with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus whose company, Cannon, had been enjoying success with a selection of low-budget schlock movies. They had occasionally made forays into respectable films but these had been abject failures – the underrated That Championship Season in particular. But despite setbacks, they were hungry to become respected in Hollywood and subsequently took genuine chances on artists, bankrolling directors such as John Cassavetes, Norman Mailer and Jean-Luc Godard. Konchalovsky was, needless to say, right up their street and they gave him the chance to make Maria’s Lovers and were then willing to let him direct Runaway Train which was exactly the change of direction he was looking for.

That he was an inspired choice is evident in the finished film. Although the action is plentiful and exciting, Konchalovsky concentrates just as much on character and emotion and this results in a film of considerable depth. It takes time to develop the people and gives them credible motivations and a sense of hinterland. This isn’t always anything very profound but occasionally, as with Manny’s monologue about work ethic, it gets to something deeper than you expect in a film about a train running out of control. The director and his production designer create realistic environments, whether the prison – which features an intensely believable knife attack – or the train itself. The result is of course, as Clouzot demonstrated in Wages of Fear, that the action when it comes is all the more effective. The film aims for a documentary feel which involved DP Alan Hume – a British stalwart more used to the world of Bond and naughty comedy – in broadening his traditional techniques to encompass strange and sometimes deliberately uncomposed camera positions.

The two central performances are what you might generously describe as vivid. Jon Voight received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Manny and it’s not entirely surprising because this is the kind of “big” acting that the Academy loves. It’s on the verge of being one thick slice of ham but that suits the character because Manny is fundamentally a big ham and he needs to be wildly oversized to even begin to be convincing. Eric Roberts’ overplaying as Buck gets a little bit irksome after a while. It was an interesting choice to make him a Southern hayseed but I suspect the over-enthusiastic playing is an indication that he was trying hard to keep up with his illustrious co-star, something which can’t have been easy. In contrast to the men, Rebecca De Mornay underplays nicely and tends to attract the lion’s share of the sympathy.

The supporting cast, however, more than delivers the goods. There are a number of faces here who will be old friends to fans of 1980s American cinema; Kyle T. Heffner, who I remember with fondness from Young Doctors In Love, is convincing as the railway dispatcher whose quick thinking saves the life of the convicts; and T. K. Carter, so memorable in The Thing strikes just the right breezy note as his colleague. Two of my favourite actors are particularly notable. Kenneth McMillan, character player of note in movies ranging from Dune to Ragtime, lends a delightfully scuzzy note to the loud-mouthed train supervisor. Meanwhile, the great John P. Ryan all but steals the film as Warden Ranken, a foul creature who gets his just desserts in the satisfying climax. Ryan wisely decides to play against the loud-mouthed cliché and creates a small classic of authoritarian malice.

Runaway Train is an intelligent and exciting film which satisfies on both an emotional and a visceral level. It sometimes fails when it tries too hard – the ending seems to me to strain for significance, accompanied as it is by a Shakespearean epigraph – and occasionally the restrictions of the budget are all too obvious. But for most of the time it’s one of those lesser known films which really does deserve a much wider audience.

The Disc

Arrow have pulled it out of the bag once again with an impressive transfer which, while not perfect, is quite an achievement. Almost all of the imperfections are inherent in the source material which shows signs of some very low-budget process work and post-production optical tinkering. There is some occasional minor damage which is perhaps more obvious because of the prevailing whites which blanket the film. Colours are, as usual with Arrow, spot-on and the level of detail is exceptional throughout. Contrast is good both in the darker interior scenes and the expansive exterior shots. The film is presented at the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1. On the whole, this is the best presentation of Runaway Train that I’ve seen since I saw it at the cinema back in 1986 – and given the limitations of the Leeds ABC Cinema, it’s probably rather better.

One thing which I do remember from that cinema showing is the enveloping impact of the Dolby Stereo sound and this is nicely recreated in the LPCM Stereo soundtrack found on this Blu-Ray. It’s quite an eventful mix which stretches impressively over the channels and delivers considerable value in the prison riot and louder action sequences. Dialogue is always clear and Trevor Jones’ music score comes across well. Optional English subtitles are provided.

The extra features are headlined by an excellent forty minute documentary with Jon Voight. He discusses the film in considerable detail and has an excellent recall of the production. There’s a good deal of generosity to his comments and he has much appreciation for Konchalovsky and the crew. Like the director, he comments on the disastrous distribution of the film and the surprise when it received award nominations.

Three shorter interviews are also included with Konchalovsky, Kyle T. Heffner and Eric Roberts. All are worth a look but the best is the first with the director on good form, reminiscing about working with Menahem Golan and recalling an amusing story about the Oscar nominations. Heffner and Roberts discuss their characters and have fond memories of the film.

Two versions of the trailer are included. Alongside the original theatrical trailer itself, there is a narrated version which sees director Rod Lurie discuss the film.

The retail package comes with a booklet containing new writing on the film but this was not available for review.

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