Runaway Train (1985)

22 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When I heard that “Runaway Train” featured a runaway train loose on train tracks in Alaska, it didn’t sound like an exciting film. With the grim look that can only be executed when a film takes place in snowy weather—and a film that is supposedly action-packed, for that matter—I asked myself how I could get excited or even invested in “Runaway Train.” But then I saw the film, directed by Andrei Konchalofsky, and I realized that this wasn’t a formula action picture. This isn’t only about stopping a runaway train; this is actually a character-based story in which the characters happen to be on a runaway train. In this case, it doesn’t matter where the film takes place; if the characters are rich and plausible, we’ll go along with it.

The movie stars Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as two convicts who escape from a maximum-security prison in Alaska. But first, we get proper introductions to the two men while they’re in prison. Voight plays Manny, a man so untrusted by the warden that his cell doors have been welded shut for years—the warden tells the press, “He’s not a man—he’s an animal.” Roberts plays Buck, a convicted rapist (“statutory rape,” as he corrects Manny) who works for the prison laundry and whose sentence is almost finished.

The warden is Ranken (John P. Ryan), who personally has it in for Manny and arranges for him to be let out among the prison. He hopes that Manny will escape so Ranken can hunt him down and kill him himself. That’s exactly what Manny does—the dim-witted Buck tags along with him because he’s in the mood for excitement. The two men escape through a sewage drain tunnel and stumble through the mountains.

Then, they sneak into one of the back cabs of a train that is carrying four cars linked together. But what they don’t know is that the engineer has had a heart attack shortly before the train left, and fallen off. The two men are alone, not knowing why the train is picking up a ridiculous amount of speed or why the train whistle is never blown…or why the train is crashing through things. We get a second series of events that involve the railway dispatchers who try desperately to find a way to stop the runaway train.

Oh, and of course, the slimy Warden knows that Manny is inside. He is desperate to find the train and kill whoever is inside. Back on the train, Buck and Manny don’t know what’s going on until they come across a female worker on the train (played by Rebecca De Mornay), who tells them about the situation. Now these three people must band together and try to survive this incredible ordeal.

“Runaway Train” is more about characters than about action. This is a real surprise—the real suspense doesn’t come from the notion of whether or not the characters can stop the train before it heads for disaster. It comes from the notion of whether or not the characters can survive together. Although, if you want action, there are great stunts and moments of real tension, particularly when the train crashes through the caboose of another train (which nearly makes it into a siding), and when the characters attempt to slow the train down a little bit after climbing alongside the ice-covered cabs. (There’s no walkway from the second to first engine, heightening the danger.) There are two perfect scenes of tension that really takes us on edge. One scene involves a showdown over sacrifice and friendship as Manny and Buck circle each other; Buck with a wrench, Manny with a knife. At this point, Manny’s hand is badly injured, but Manny still doesn’t see that Buck is the bigger threat in this situation. This scene is intense, mostly because it shows how these characters will act in dire circumstances. The outcome of this sequence comes as a surprise, but it’s believable.

The other sequence comes near the end, as the warden Ranken catches up with the train by helicopter and dangles from the chopper to get inside and kill Manny. Manny isn’t giving in—he goes for Ranken himself, risking his life to get to the front of the train. I won’t give away the outcome of this also-intense sequence, because it would be giving away the ending of the film.

Jon Voight gives one of his best performances as the convict Manny, a man who is intelligent and philosophical in his own way. I love the speech he gives to Buck, played by Eric Roberts as a man with little intelligence and looks to Manny as a hero, about how limited their own choices will become in the future. Voight brings a powerful presence in that scene, and throughout this movie.

Rebecca De Mornay doesn’t play the standard female love interest, but then again, she isn’t playing much of a character in this movie. But the reason that audiences can identify with her is because she acts as outsider to Manny and Buck’s attitudes to the situation and to each other.

“Runaway Train” isn’t a standard action picture—it’s a special film that mixes action and suspense with three-dimensional characters. It doesn’t matter where it takes place. It’s still exciting and riveting.

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