Runaway Train (1985) / Thriller-Action

MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 111 min.


Cast: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca DeMornay, Kyle T. Heffner, John P. Ryan, T.K. Carter, Kenneth McMillan, Stacey Pickren, Walter Wyatt, Edward Bunker, Tom "Tiny" Lister (cameo)
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Screenplay: Edward Bunker, Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel (based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa)
Review published March 19, 2005

Runaway Train was originally an Akira Kurosawa project called back in the mid-1960s, which would have been an American production for the famous Japanese filmmaker.  The screenplay was written, but unfortunately, the project never did get off the ground, and was subsequently abandoned.  Fast forward to the mid-1980s, where an adaptation of Kurosawa's original screenplay was developed, making some notable changes, injecting a feeling of existentialism in a standard action vehicle, but the core of the story remained intact. 

Runaway Train opens in a high security penitentiary located in the heart of snowy Alaska.  It's a prison full of some of the worst scoundrels in the country, with the most notorious among them being Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight, Heat), who is a hero to the rest of the inmates for his in-your-face attitude and defiance of the law.  He is one of the only people to ever stand up to the vicious warden, Ranken (John P. Ryan, The Postman Always Rings Twice), and in his latest feat, he manages to escape from the hell hole and venture out into the Alaskan wilderness on foot, along with a fellow inmate, Buck (Eric Roberts, National Security).  With Ranken and the rest hot on their trail, Manny and Buck climb aboard a freight train, only to have the conductor keel over from a heart attack, and then the brakes give out.  At an ever increasing speed, Manny and Buck must find a way to stop the train from certain calamity, while also making sure they don't get nabbed by Ranken in the process.

At its heart, Runaway Train is a b-movie premise that manages to rise up into a respectable thriller, mostly due to the grittiness of the developments, and the interesting performances by the leads.  Russian director Konchalovsky (Tango & Cash, The Odyssey) does a commendable job constructing the action sequences, which are the impetus for some nail-biting moments in the story.  A well deserved Oscar nomination would go to Henry Richardson (Octopussy, The Thirteenth Floor) for his film editing. 

The performances by Voight and Roberts are fairly over-the-top, but have a comic quality that makes them engaging despite the artifice.  These aren't very bright guys, and the script smartly capitalizes on that fact, as their inability to come up with a solution to their plight seems right on target.  Both actors would receive Academy Award nominations for this film.  Neither would win, although both won in their category at the Golden Globes.  It must not have been a strong year for quality male performances in 1985.

Runaway Train is a good "bad" movie -- a movie that should have been bad, but which is elevated a tick because of the eccentric performances and inherently engaging plot.  it can be enjoyed on a completely superficial level, although some film scholars have used the film to draw up some interesting allegorical theories as to just what the film is all about underneath the surface.  I didn't bother reading much into it, and still came away entertained.  If you like the actors, or are just a junkie for action thrillers, Runaway Train gets a recommendation for a couple of hours of high-powered, offbeat thrills.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo