My Favorite Movies – Runaway Train (1985)

5 Oct

By Tanner Smith

I remember when I first saw this movie about two cons being trapped on a speeding runaway train, I was confused because it was nothing like the action films I had seen before. I think I was expecting something like “Speed” (runaway bus) or “Unstoppable” (another runaway train)–a lot of thrilling action, speeding through the city, likable heroes to save the day, not much to provoke thought, just a hella good time. But that’s not what I got with “Runaway Train”–it took me a while to realize how brilliant it was.

The film stars Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as Manny and Buck, two convicts who escape from an Alaskan maximum security prison and hop aboard the caboose of a train going along the snowy, desolate railroad. (Already, the setting was different than I expected–how many action films take place in snowy, bleak Alaska?) But what they don’t realize is that the conductor has suffered a heart attack and fallen off the train. There’s no one on the train to shut it down as it accelerates and the dispatchers do their best to handle the situation, and Manny and Buck are none the wiser until the train runs through and smashes the caboose of another train. They also meet a worker on the train, named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), who is also powerless to stop the train but at least knows how to slow it down. Meanwhile, the prison warden is aware the convicts are on the runaway train and is hellbent on making sure he gets to them before the train derails…

With the exception of the desolate Alaskan landscape, this sounds like your typical action flick, right? Well, if I told you this was based on an original screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, then you might get an idea as to what’s really on this film’s mind. There is some good action, to be sure (a lot of the stunts in this movie, I can’t believe they had the budget to pull them off!), but “Runaway Train” is more about philosophy and character. It asks questions such as:

What does it mean to be “free”? What makes man different from animal? And why is it that modern technology can solve some logical problems but not problems that require human thought? This film is intelligent enough to provoke those questions.

Jon Voight turns in what I think is his career-best as Manny–make no mistake: this guy is not your traditional hero. He is dangerous and twisted and obviously sentenced to life in prison for good reason, and as the movie goes on, he keeps you guessing as to whether or not he’s worth rooting for. He does know what a normal life is like–when the younger, more excited, less experienced Buck brags about all the outrageous things he’s going to do now that he’s free, Manny lays it all down realistically in a great speech that says everything about what he wishes he could do. But late in the film, I’ll be terrified of what he’s about to do and I’ll see him as the villain, and then suddenly I’ll be invested in him as a hero again because of the choices that he makes. And then, right at the end, without giving away spoilers, his last action becomes one that everyone will want to talk about afterwards.

My favorite scene: the ending. I already said I wouldn’t go into it here, so I’ll just say that no matter how many times I watch this film, this final moment never ceases to amaze me.

So, what did Siskel & Ebert say about one of my favorite movies back when it was originally released in 1985? Well, Siskel didn’t like it; he admired Voight’s performance but criticized Roberts’ manic energy, De Mornay’s seemingly pointless character, and even the shots of the speeding train. Ebert, however, loved it, calling it “a reminder that the great adventures are great because they happen to people we care about.”

I’m with Ebert. And I think I like “Runaway Train” just a little more than he did–it’s one of my favorite movies.

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