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USA 1985
Directed by
Andrei Konchalovsky
111 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Runaway Train

Jon Voight plays Oscar “Manny” Manheim, a hardened convict who is so pathologically non-compliant that his cell doors have been welded shut for three years. Eric Roberts is Buck, a high-strung young fellow inmate who idolizes him. Together they escape from a maximum-security prison in Alaska only to board a chain of locomotives that is accelerating to destruction after the driver dies of a sudden cardiac arrest while shuntng out of the yard.

Runaway Train starts rather unpromisingly as a routine-looking prison movie but once the surprisingly easy escape occurs and the two men are aboard the train it really moves into a special place, becoming an intense character study of desperate individuals under pressure.

Perhaps some of the quality came from Akira Kurosawa’s original script (most probably the source of  the film’s endquote from Shakespeare's "Richard III": "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore I am no beast" is a legacy of that) but it would be churlish not to recognize the superb direction of Andrei Konchalovsky and the equally important cinematography by Alan Hume and his camera crew who do a remarkable job of filming the train hurtling (or so it seems) across the snow-bound Alaskan landscape and the two men (they are joined halfway through the film by Rebecca De Mornay) as they work their way forward on its ice-covered outside in an attempt to stop it (bar a couple of brief back-projections the stunts appear to be all old school, no CGI here).  There are other elements to the film, the pursuit of Manheim by his sworn enemy Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) and the frantic efforts at Central Control to stop the train colliding with anything on the tracks but these are unremarkable, even cheesy in places.

If all this is enough to constitute a solid action film it is the sections set in the cabin of the train and the dynamics between Buck and Manny and their reluctant female companion that make the film outstanding for the action genre. Whilst Roberts is somewhat annoying as a dumb-ass Southern boy he is essentially a foil to Voight who gives one of his career-best performances (he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar as a man whose many years, nay a lifetime, of adversity has crystallized into a penetrating adversarial metaphysic (see above quote). De Mornay's Sara is a humanising presence, functioning in a way as the audience's surrogate presence.

What makes Konchalovsky’s film so good is that all this is delivered with raw intensity, the grueling nature of the difficult filming circumstances seeming to have had their influence on the performances. Runaway Train is one of those rare and delightful finds, a film that transcends its generic form.




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