The schlock-meisters at Cannon Group actually put out a good film when they released Runaway Train in 1985. Not that I don’t absolutely love their weirdo camp films like Masters of the Universe (shirtless Dolph Lundgren…yes please!) and the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cobra for the cheese-fests that they are, but Runaway Train is a little different because there are actual real-life fleshed out characters that the audience comes to care about, despite their enormous flaws. A strange thing, yes, but here we are.
Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and adapted by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and Edward Bunker, Runaway Train was directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy. He was the perfect director for the film since he’s known for serious movies as well as lighter fare such as the wonderful Tango and Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. Kurosawa wrote his version of the script while he was working on Red Beard, intending to direct the movie himself, which would have been his first American-financed film. For various reasons, the movie wasn’t made until the early 80’s, and by then Kurosawa was no longer attached. Fun fact: Runaway Train is on Time.com’s list of top ten train movies, coming in at number eight. Not bad!
The film centers around two escaped convicts, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts), and Oscar “Manny” Manheim (Jon Voight) who stow away on a train right before the engineer has a heart attack and dies just as he gets the vehicle moving. Bad luck, but quite a premise!
Buck and Manny are an odd couple from the start. Buck is a bit…slow. He’s a boxer with a heavy Southern accent who’s nice enough, but a bit of a dolt. He’s not stupid, but he doesn’t exactly think things through. And, like almost everyone else in the maximum security prison where he’s housed, he admires the hell out of Manny, who’s made several escapes. Manny’s also a violent sociopath and a dangerous dude. He’s so dangerous, in fact, that his cell doors have been welded shut (!). But when the film opens, some bleeding heart judge has ordered Manny’s cell to be opened and Manny is let out into general population.
The kind of 80’s action excesses that we’ve come to associate with a Cannon film are mostly seen in the first fifteen minutes or so of the movie. There’s all sorts of criminal types rioting, burning stuff (who brought all the lighters?), and basically acting like uncivilized ruffians in general. The prison has a very old, very worn look. Rust and decay everywhere. That kind of thing. Not a nice place to spend time. The atmosphere of the joint is nicely summarized by a prisoner’s shirt, which simply reads, “Eat Shit.” Indeed.
Well, might as well start things off with a riot as the news of Manny’s release from solitary makes its way around the prisoners, and the inmates start lighting papers on fire. (Really, though, who is giving these guys lighters? Not a good idea.) In contrast to all this, by the time Buck and Manny stow away on their doomed train, the movie starts to seem like a subtle character study in comparison. Though, of course, there’s plenty of action there, too.
You know, there’s something pretty strange about this movie. It seems to take several positions at once on the treatment of prisoners. Certainly the writers and Konchalovskiy believed that there was indeed something very barbaric about these men who’ve committed terrible, violent crimes. And yet, the criminals have our sympathy because of how horribly they’re mistreated. It is odd, especially for an 80’s action film, that the movie can’t quite decide whether it wants to portray the inmates as animals or victims. I guess they’re supposed to be both? That the answer is so complicated says a lot about the quality of this film.
And then there’s the warden, played flawlessly by character actor John P. Ryan. He’s kinda-sorta the villain of the film in that he’s overly cynical about the people who are in his charge. He calls them animals, sure, and that’s a little harsh, but we’re talking about some pretty violent dudes and the warden even admits that a riot could break out at any time, so maybe we can cut him a little slack for being such a hardass? The movie tries to make the case that his attitude toward the inmates (we never see him commit any actual violence against the inmates, though it’s implied) makes him no better than them, but I’m not buying that. Would you want the guy’s job? Someone has to do it.
And Manny…well, yes, he is a sociopath, and not one of the loveable types you’ve no doubt heard of. He’s mean and ornery and he’s at war with the world. Needless to say, when he’s stuck on a train with the aw-shucks good ‘ol boy Buck, he’s severely annoyed by the guy. Then there’s Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), a very cute railroad employee who becomes part of this adventure after she decides to take a mid-shift nap. If we don’t care too much about whether Buck and Manny survive, Sara, an innocent, has us rooting unequivocally for this weird trio’s survival.
The train roars down the track during a cold Montana winter and you can just feel the bitter cold coming through your screen. Several attempts are made by Buck, Manny, and Sara to stop the train on their own, which leads to some harrowing and tense scenes where each of them is outside of the train on their own at least once, battling the elements and their fears. All the while, the warden is in pursuit of Manny, absolutely enraged that the guy was able to escape prison once again. Both Manny and the warden are determined that this is going to be his last escape.
The final confrontation between Manny and the warden is weird and over-the-top and peppered with silly speeches about morality and it feels so inevitable, as if no other ending was possible, but it was one that I certainly didn’t see coming. By the end of the movie, we realize that there are no heroes, nobody to really root for except Sara, and yet we’ve come to care about these people, even Manny, who is one of the most unlikeable characters you’re likely to see. In action movies during the 1980’s, there were almost always clear dividing lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Not so with Runaway Train, and it’s a far more interesting movie because of it.
Runaway Train is available through Twilight Time