Runaway Train Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 release of Runaway Train.

One of the tiny handful of halfway decent films to emerge from the notorious Golan-Globus Cannon partnership, Runaway Train has an unusual pedigree, to say the least. Based on an original screenplay by the great Akira Kurosawa (who tried and failed to get the film off the ground in the mid-1970s), it was eventually directed by the Russian emigré Andrei Konchalovsky (whose credits include co-writing Tarkovsky’s monumental Andrei Rublev) – working from a script co-written by convict-turned-novelist Edward Bunker (who’s probably best known for playing Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs).

And if that wasn’t enough it also casts the archetypal wet liberal Jon Voight spectacularly against type as Oscar ‘Manny’ Mannheim, a convict so vicious that just before the film begins he’s spent three years literally welded into his cell – a very sensible move, as it turns out, since one of his first acts on winning a civil rights suit and being allowed back into the rest of the prison is to escape, with young and somewhat misguided hero-worshipper Buck (the hilarious Eric Roberts) in tow.

Unfortunately, Stonehaven Prison is set in the snowy wastes of Alaska, and those who break out face just two choices: freeze to death or smuggle themselves onto the first train out. And – wouldn’t you just know it – mere seconds after the train they catch starts to move, the driver has a heart attack and falls out of the cabin, and the brakes conveniently fail at the same time, leaving the train to roar through the landscape with no obvious means of stopping it, leaving helpless railway officials to resort to desperate damage limitation measures while staring escalating disaster right in the face.

And just to complicate matters still further, once the train’s passengers have been identified, Stonehaven’s chief warden (John P Ryan) decides to mount a one-man assault on the train via helicopter – and since he’s clearly just as much of a psychopath as any of his charges, the scene is set for a spectacular showdown.

Ludicrously unconvincing though this material sounds in that bald summary, on screen it mostly works like a dream. The train sequences are genuinely thrilling, shot and scored to emphasise the vehicle’s overwhelming physicality (when the train ploughs through a caboose thanks to some poor signalling and points coordination, you really feel the impact), and while the production occasionally betrays typical Cannon corner-cutting (there are some dodgy process shots), overall this is way above average for its genre, and is so gripping that it even manages to get away with some absurdly pretentious philosophising (leading up to a final shot that features a printed quotation from Richard III that’s underscored by a Vivaldi choral work).

This is largely because it’s not just a technical showcase – it’s also a strong, character-driven drama, boosted immensely by the performances of Voight, Roberts (both of whom were Oscar-nominated) and Rebecca DeMornay as the engineer’s assistant who inadvertently ends up on the train with them. If it’s ultimately not quite up to the level of the masterly Wages of Fear, still the definitive study of people trapped in near-suicidal situations, it certainly doesn’t suffer too much from the comparison – and it moves one hell of a lot faster!

The DVD picture isn’t great – non-anamorphic NTSC and distinctly grainy – but that matters less with this film than it would with glossier efforts. For starters, the fact that much of the film is set in the middle of a raging blizzard means that a superior transfer probably wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference to the overall effect – it’s only in the scenes in the operations room that the visual drawbacks really become apparent. Also, the grey, desaturated colour scheme was very much characteristic of the 35mm release as well. It’s been transferred at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio, though there’s also a 4:3 version on the other side.

Sonically, it’s presented in the original Dolby Surround, though given the wealth of directional train and helicopter shots a full 5.1 remix wouldn’t have gone amiss, not to mention a general cleanup – although for the most part it does a very effective job, there’s a slight but noticeable amount of distortion, though it’s never seriously worrying.

There’s a very generous selection of 32 chapter stops, each given its own small video clip on the menu, but what’s far less generous is the near-total lack of extras – just the theatrical trailer, and that’s it, which is particularly frustrating given the film’s unusually interesting background (and the shoot itself must have been fairly gruelling, given the weather conditions!).

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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