Friday, 12 July 2013

Runaway Train (1985)

In the mid-1980s, the Cannon Group seemed to have their name (or rather the names of producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) on every other film being released to video. Unfortunately at that time every other film being released to video tended to have titles like BREAKDANCE 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO or NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. Cannon was responsible for both those and a whole slew of what was (often kindly it has to be said) described as schlock films. Even when they made a bid for the big time with a budget to match they were more likely to end up with something like Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE, which, while tremendous and delirious fun, was still very much a movie in the exploitation mould of their much lower-budget affairs.
Very, very occasionally, however, Cannon got it right. Fresh from the success of a string of European art house movies like SIBIRIADA and MARIA’S LOVERS (with Nastassja Kinski), Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky was given carte blanche (he admits it in the extras on this disk) by the Go-Go boys (as they were known at the time. The Globs was another less-than-complimentary nickname bestowed upon them by their Hollywood contemporaries) to make the kind of film he wanted. The result was RUNAWAY TRAIN, a movie that succeeds marvellously in the exceedingly difficult task of being both an action movie exploitation picture and an art house epic, all at the same time. That’s not at all an easy thing to do, and I can probably count the number of movies that achieve this balancing act so well on the fingers of one hand. I had never seen RUNAWAY TRAIN until now, and if this review has one take home message it’s this: if you only ever see one Cannon Film, this is the one. 
Jon Voight, in a role he was initially reluctant to play (we get to hear all about that on the extras as well) is Oscar ‘Manny’ Manheim, a criminal so vicious he has spent the last three years welded into a cell at a remote penitentiary in the wilds of Alaska. Manny hasn’t been resting on his laurels, or even his bunk, however, and, in a plot development that curiously enough echoes recent news events in Strasbourg, he has his appeal to the court of human rights accepted and is allowed to be freed from his solitary confinement so that he can mix with the other prisoners. 
      Prison Warden Ranken (John P Ryan) isn’t at all happy about this, and attempts to engineer a situation whereby Manny can be legally shot by one of the guards. It all goes wrong, however, and the prison embarks on the latest of what seems to be The Regular Daily Riot, where things get smashed, books get set on fire, and Danny Trejo (billed here in a very early role as Daniel Trejo), in a literally blink and you’ll miss him appearance, gets to shout and scream and fight with all the others. 
      Things calm down but it’s all too much for Manny, who plans an escape. He manages to do so with
the aid of Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who ends up accompanying him on a death-defying plunge out of the prison sewers fifty feet straight down into a freezing river. Then it’s a quick hike in temperatures of 30 degrees below freezing, during which Roberts loses his shoe but magically not his foot, before they come to a railway station. There Manny sees his chariot to freedom in the shape of not just one but four massive clanking locomotives that have all been coupled together. However, just as Manny and Buck leap aboard, the driver decides to have a massive heart attack, jam the brake lever so the brakes burn out, drop dead, and fall off the train, thus creating the uncontrollable machine of the title.
From then on the film switches from an extremely effective prison break drama to a runaway action picture, but Konchalovsky, with the aid of his actors (including an almost unrecognisable Rebecca de Mornay as the only railway worker left on the train), never loses sight of the human side of things. There’s philosophy, clever dialogue interplay, and some tremendous acting in between some spectacular photography, model and back screen projection work. So effective is most of this that even watching this nearly thirty years after it was made, I still thought much of what was happening on screen had to be for real.
The ending of RUNAWAY TRAIN is just perfect. It will stay with you long after the movie is over, and of course I’m not going to tell you what it is because if you haven’t seen this movie you need to get hold of Arrow’s new double disc DVD and Blu-ray set when it comes out. In fact, RUNAWAY TRAIN is a success all round. Both Voight and Roberts are especially memorable and deserved their Oscar nominations for this picture, but de Mornay helps to anchor their performances in the real world. John P Ryan played the distressed father to a psychopathic homicidal mutant baby in IT’S ALIVE, reprising his role in IT LIVES AGAIN. Here he plays a very different character in Warden Ranken who is pretty much a psychopath himself, relentless in his pursuit of the two escaped convicts, and he puts in as believable a performance as the two leads.. 
Technical credits are all top notch. Fans of British horror will recognise the name of DP Alan Hume who, as well as working on a number of Bond films shot the Amicus film FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE and John Hough’s THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. Editor Henry Richardson (who was also nominated for an Oscar for this) cut Tyburn’s THE GHOUL and LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, and a trawl of the end credits reveals other names famous for their work on Hammer and Amicus pictures including Howard Brandy who produced BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB and Peter Weatherley who edited it. Most of the kudos, though, has to go to director Andrei Konchalovsky, whose unobtrusive style, and sensitivity with the subject matter elevates what could so easily have been a third rate Cannon picture starring Sylvester Stallone into poetry starring Jon Voight, and bloody well done to him for doing so.
      As always, Arrow have packed their disc with extras, including an extensive interview with star Jon Voight which last about forty minutes. Voight shows a quite phenomenal memory of the making of what was obviously a significant experience for him as he talks about his casting, his preparation, and his work on the picture. A slightly shorter interview with Andrei Konchalovsky is no less interesting, at least in part because of what he has to say about working for Cannon. There are also interviews with Eric Roberts who has nothing but good things to say about the movie, and Kyle T Heffner who reminisces about having his head shoved down a toilet filled with apple juice. Finally, to round off the package there’s the RUNAWAY TRAIN trailer commentary from Trailers From Hell, in which director Rod Lurie (the remake of STRAW DOGS, apparently) gives his own opinion on the film.
RUNAWAY TRAIN is a classic. It’s due to be released on Blu-ray by Arrow later this month, and both film and presentation are absolutely marvellous. Do yourself and favour and pick up the best version available of a film that shows all all its key players at the top of their game. Seriously good stuff.

RUNAWAY TRAIN will be released on a Blu-ray and DVD Dual Format Edition on Monday July 22nd 2013


  1. I love this film. Roberts and Voight's performances are fantastic, the atmosphere always brutal and intense. The train itself is a star, a half-alive beast of a machine. I might just have to upgrade to Blu-ray for this one.

  2. I too love this film. I will pre-order it now... That last image is wonderful.