Runaway Train Review
You do what you have to do, I’ll do what I have to do. Whatever happens, happens.
Based on an original story by Akira 'Seven Samurai' Kurosawa, nominated for three Academy Awards, including a Best Actor nod for former Oscar winner Jon 'Midnight Cowboy' Voight, and probably one of the best train-based action thrillers of all time, Andrei Konchalovsky's 1985 feature will likely seem familiar even to those who are seeing it for the first time, mostly because it was so woefully ripped off in the late Tony Scott's considerably more mundane 2010 flick Unstoppable.
Don't just dismiss it because of its age, or because you've never heard of it - even on release the producing film studio themselves, the action-magnet Cannon didn't know what to do with this little gem, premiering it at a Bollywood cinema to understandably less than spectacular results. Thankfully it has gained cult momentum and hopefully more and more people will discover this gritty, atypical, character-driven prison break / out-of-control train thriller.
“You’re an animal.”
“No, worse. Human. Human!”
Oscar "Manny" Mannheim is a career criminal and hero to the inmates of the Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. Two prior escapes have left him trapped in a cell with the doors inhumanely welded-shut, but when the court orders his release back into the prison population on human rights grounds, the first thing that Manny does is orchestrate his next escape. Little does he know that he's going to survive the Alaskan wilderness to end up on an out-of-control freight train, thundering its way towards a chemical plant, taking out everything in its path. And with a relentless and vindictive deputy Warden on his trail, Manny doesn't stand much chance of surviving, let alone escaping. Still, if he's going to go, he's sure as hell going to go with a bang.
After his underrated 1965 drama Red Beard, acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa got busy writing and preparing his US debut - in colour no less. Based on a real-life incident, and with the intention of casting Henry Fonda as the psychotic warden and none other than Peter 'Columbo' Falk as the escaped convict, Kurosawa's plans were themselves derailed and the project sat in limbo for 20 years until Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky picked it up, dusted it off, commissioned a rewrite (involving none other than Reservoir Dogs' Edward Bunker, himself an ex-con, brought in to season the prison lingo) and cast his own leads.
“You do what you have to do, I’ll do what I have to do. Whatever happens, happens.”
Jon Voight was coming off a debut decade of critical and commercial success when he took the part of Manny, with the trifecta of Midnight Cowboy, Deliverance and Coming Home, for which he finally won a Best Actor Oscar, cementing his standing and star power. He was initially concerned about taking the darker role, originally written as a murderer but later changed to a bank robber, but his against-type casting was a clever tactic. Indeed, it was not wholly unlike Kurosawa's original intentions (Fonda and Falk would have both been playing against type - in fact Fonda would, not long after, be persuaded to play his first truly evil villain in Leone's seminal Once Upon a Time in the West, to great effect) and, whilst we are now somewhat accustomed to Voight's more mischievous turns (Mission: Impossible, Anaconda, Enemy of the State and, most recently, 24), back in 1985 it was a daring shift for him, so atypical that they had to go to great lengths to make him convince in the role.
Donning thickly padded clothing to beef up his physique, he largely kept his blonde locks under cover and had a little clever cosmetic works done to one of his eye-lids to stamp on any hint of his previous (comparative) pretty-boy image. He also spent time with real life prisoners to get a feel for the part, adopting a strange but fairly effective drawl and even styling his facial hair in a manner he regarded to be appropriate for a hardened con.
“You don’t know what you could do, what you can’t.”
Voight would reign as one of the strongest points of not only the film but the production itself, coming up with much of his own distinctive dialogue - including one powerful monologue that was probably the biggest reason for his Oscar nod. That said, the Oscars aren’t always a sign of unquestionably good taste, with co-star Eric Roberts’ Best Supporting Actor nod seeming somewhat off the mark. Roberts may well be on good form, stepping out of his comfort zone for this role (although, off the back of his pairing with Mickey Rourke in the excellent Pope of Greenwich Village, it wasn’t that much of a stretch), and even suggesting his own tweaks for the part – including a strange country-boy accent designed to highlight his limited intelligence – but he still borders on irritating more often than not. And whilst it may still be a relative high point in his relatively low career, the first choices of Jeff Bridges or Tom Berenger might have been able to do better with the role.
Rebecca De Mornay also does her best, but sometimes struggles, as a railway employee caught up on the runaway. The Director originally vetoed first choice Jodie Foster (and then Indy’s Karen Allen) because she apparently looked too elegant for the role – although I question his judgment when he says Foster would look more convincing “playing the violin” – but De Mornay wasn’t exactly painful to the eyes, particularly in her younger years, so it’s a wonder why she was chosen over the former, better actress.
Still, they were all comparatively entertaining when juxtaposed with the amateurish participation of the railway staff in central control, who feel like they’re in an entirely different, considerably lesser feature, and who threaten to derail the tension every time they are on screen. Thankfully character actor John P. Ryan steals the show with his smugly psychotic smirk and relentless dedication to the cause, playing the demented associate warden with a devilish relish – showing his cards early on when he tries to have Manny assassinated by one of the other inmates. He makes for a worthy antagonist – sure it would have been great to see Henry Fonda in the part, but he was perfect for this version of the movie.
“Let me tell you where you a**holes stand. First there’s God, then the warden, then my guards, then the dogs out there in the kennel, and, finally, you. Pieces of human waste. No good to yourselves or anybody else.”
Of course the true stars of the show were the train and setting – clearly overshadowing anything even Voight and Ryan could come up with – so well were they used to convince you of the enduring threat. The striking Alaskan setting gives the film an almost mythical, other-worldly backdrop, the snowy tundra and clouded white skies framing some of the most spectacular shots. The feature was intentionally given an almost black-and-white look – allowing it a nice tribute-to-Kurosawa feel – and this is never more evident than during the longer shots of the monstrous charcoal black juggernaut thundering through the stark white background, with only fragile weather-beaten trees peppering the desolate landscape.
The train is itself something of a force of nature, but credit should also be given for the stunning way in which model effects, full-scale sets and actual train footage is seamlessly blended to give a sense that we are genuinely looking at real stunts involving a real train. Cleverly taking just the right quota of genuine train shots – including some innovative from-the-rail-tracks perspectives – which include not only the convincing stunt doubles but also the leading actors themselves (a trick which also worked a decade later for Seagal’s Under Siege 2, which actually involved the exact same train), it’s almost impossible to distinguish what is real and what is not. In order to capture the dragged-under-the-train sequences they built a rotating stage which ran at speed, and genuinely had an actor hanging from the bottom of the stage train – and it works, leaving you wondering whether they were actually dragging someone beneath a train! Whilst the film secured a nominated for Best Editing, it was robbed of an Effects nod, at the very least, and the footage certainly amounts to some of the best action sequences involving a train ever captured on film.
Of course if you’ve seen the late Tony Scott’s swansong – the serviceable train-based actioner, Unstoppable – you might wonder whether you’re just seeing the same story for a second time. Indeed, once we reach the train itself, the narrative takes a very similar track, right down to the lost brakes, lost driver, train-dodging-on-a-side-line, attempting to mount the train from a helicopter and crashing through the window, heading towards an explosive tanker plant, and jumping from car-to-car to shut it down. Hell, even the concept of another train attempting to catch-up and board the runaway was originally in Kurosawa’s script but dropped from the final film due to budgetary restrictions. Sure, they say Unstoppable was based on real-life events (and Kurosawa’s script was too) but the similarities are far too specific to ignore, and the sub-genre too specialist for it to be believable that Runaway Train never popped up in any of the brainstorming sessions.
“I’m at war with the world and everybody in it.”
Thankfully Runaway Train, aside from being the original, actually feels more original and fresh, with a gritty, grimy style to it which lends the piece some verity. The prison sequences are raw, the snowy setting is unusual and effective, and the train-based action is brutal and, at times, really quite bloody. Recommended.
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