Not to be confused with the late Tony Scott’s Unstoppable, Runaway Train is based on a potential début colour film by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, later redrafted by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker, with Andrei Konchalovsky on director duties. In this 1985 film, Jon Voight stars as Oscar “Manny” Manheim, a controversial inmate even at the Stonehaven maximum security prison. A deal of that controversy and idolization from his fellow prisoners comes from him being dangerous enough to be sealed in his cell for three years. After being freed, by court order, he quickly takes the opportunity to escape the prison with the unwanted Buck (Eric Roberts) in tow. The plan to escape quickly backfires as the engineer falls from the train with a heart attack and it’s not long after that when their mode of escape becomes the so-called runaway train.
The one word to describe Runaway Train would be nihilistic. Buck is the young idealist of the duo, and even though he is often annoying, he has a notable zeal for life. No such compliment can be paid to Manny. With his scarred visage and slurred speech, Manny is someone who is furious with the world. Even if he’s idolized within the walls of the prison, outside that statement quickly fails to hold traction. The once romanticized Manny is gone, and the crude shell of a man is all that remains. That same toughness permeates the entire run time, leading towards the conclusion that Runaway Train seeks to depict career criminals (and to extent the prison and police profession) as monsters in human form.
The performances are harder to admire, especially with the grand sentiments the film employs. More often than not, Voight and Roberts are playing louder than life characters. The bravado they display is testing to get on with as it accounts to little more than overloaded histrionics. It’s only in the quiet that we get any sense of character, in the fleeting instants when realisations are made and the reality of the danger is grasped. These brief moments are all the film allows itself to be more than a ‘crude charmer’.
That crude charm is of unfriendly stock, as the film is full of hard characters that are difficult to get on with. On the other hand within its generic constraints, Runaway Train is a blast. Cutting back and forth between the relative bliss of the convicts to the chaos of the train company trying their hardest to prevent any accidents, it’s a simple formula but a tried and tested one. Even with the simple dot and line computer display, there is never any doubt at the severity of the situation. This gives the sedate character moments between Manny and Buck, an ever escalating unseen threat, making these scenes all the more dynamic. This peril reaches fever-pitch when Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) turns up.
When Sara turns up the film flirts with classic status. With the trio slowly working their way up the train trying to stop the ever accelerating behemoth, you are watching the very epitome of edge of the seat tension. Even though the pacing is near enough perfect throughout, it’s here where the film and its characters plight become relatable. This is simply because of the use of music. If this film was made within the contemporary studio environment, the score would be intrusive to the extreme. The music would gallop as violently as the train itself, dictating and manipulating your emotions. Here, the score is far more minimal by design. The struggle of the group is everything the soundtrack needs, with the wind blasting and the mechanical dirge of the train; the sound design raises the stakes more than any horn or string section could.
To recap, it’s the simplicity of Runaway Train that makes it such an esteemed cult film with tension that is second to few. Sadly it’s that overblown sentiment that flirts with the pretentious where Konchalovsky’s film drops a notch or two. It’s that barely concealed subtext that is the crucial difference between respecting the film and falling head over heels for its simple thrills.
Runaway Train is released on Blu-Ray for the first time, worldwide, on 22nd July 2013 on Arrow Video.