The Best Movie You Never Saw: Runaway Train
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at RUNAWAY TRAIN.
THE STORY: Two hardened convicts (Jon Voight & Eric Roberts), stashed away in a remote super-max Alaskan prison, stage a daring escape. They hitch a ride on a freight train, but after the engineer has a heart-attack, they find themselves stuck on an out-of-control locomotive, barreling towards doom. Desperate to regain control of the train, the two men, and a railway employee (Rebecca De Mornay) who’s stranded with them, fight for their lives – all the while being stalked by their obsessed former warden (John P. Ryan).
THE HISTORY: Cannon Films – circa the mid-eighties – was not a place known for putting out quality films. Sure, some of you may roll your eyes at that generalization, name-checking entertaining Cannon flicks like INVASION U.S.A, BLOODSPORT, OVER THE TOP and others. Sure, they made fun movies – but not many that were especially good on a level beyond camp. However, that’s not for a lack of trying, as company head Menahem Golan desperately wanted to be taken seriously in Hollywood, and signed lots of big deals with prestige directors hoping he’d get some good movies out there. Sure enough, he did get a few, like John Frankenheimer’s 52 PICK-UP, John Cassavetes’ LOVE STREAMS and Barbet Schroeder’s BARFLY. But, their genre fare was mostly disposable, with one strong exception – RUNAWAY TRAIN.
Yeah, but the reason why it was so unexpected was that it was a Golan-Globus Production, dude. Those things don’t get nominated for anything except Best Joke. [Laughs.] And here we were with three Academy Award nominations: me, Jon, and the editor [Henry Richardson]. We just kicked ass, us three. I’m very proud of that movie, and I’m very proud of that character. I based that character on my oldest friend in the world, a boy named Irwin White, from Atlanta, Georgia. [Adopts Southern accent again] He’s just a real sweet Southern boy who talks like this. And I based the character on him because he’s just so nice. I wanted the character I played to be nice, since Jon’s character was so bad. I wanted to be a dichotomy to his character, not just a younger version of him.” – Eric Roberts, Random Roles Interview – AV Club
In the ELECTRIC BOOGALLOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS doc, one of the interviewees makes a case for RUNAWAY TRAIN being one of the greatest action movies ever made. That’s high praise for sure – but not praise the movie isn’t deserving of. Based on a story by Akira Kurosawa of all people, this was directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian director best-known to that point for art-house fare. A unique guy to make this kind of film, Konchalovsky took what could have been a fairly standard action yarn and turned it into a truly artistic piece of work. Of course, being that this was the eighties, audiences stayed-away in droves. Still, the movie got amazing reviews, with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts both walking away with Oscar nominations for their work (the ace editing also received a nod).
WHY IT'S GREAT: There are so many things to love about RUNAWAY TRAIN, but the most compelling is definitely Jon Voight’s towering performance as con Oscar “Manny” Manheim. He’s so far from your typical hero that I’d even hesitate to call him an anti-hero. If a conventional studio was able to have its way with the script, Manny would have been turned-into someone wrongfully accused or guilty of some minor misdeed or something like that. Not so here. Manny is a hardened lifer – with a hair-trigger temper and a flair for violence that’s so dangerous the doors of his cell have been welded shut. Co-written by noted ex-con Eddie Bunker, who has a cameo as a pal of Voight’s on the inside, there’s nothing phony or false about Manny or Voight’s performance. If you only know Voight from ‘Ray Donovan’, you’ll be amazed at his work here, which came along at the tail-end of his leading man period, which included such notable films at MIDNIGHT COWBOY, COMING HOME, DELIVERENCE and THE CHAMP.
“Can you act like a convict?” I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard. I’d been in every penitentiary in the state. I looked at him and I said, “Well, I’ll give it a shot.” He gave me a blue shirt, and I took off my shirt, and I have that big tattoo on my chest. He said “Leave your shirt off.” Then this other guy comes over and says, “Hey, you’re Danny Trejo. I saw you win the lightweight and welterweight title up in San Quentin.” And I go, “Yeah. You’re Eddie Bunker.” I had been in prison with him. And he was a writer. We started talking, and he asked, “Are you still boxing?” … I started training Eric Roberts how to box. Eric wanted to learn how to box, and I think he was scared of me, so he’d do whatever I told him to do. Andrey Konchalovskiy, the director, saw that he would do whatever I told him to do. I guess Andrey had some problems with it. So Andrey comes over and hires me. He says, “You be in the movie. You fight Eric in the movie.” And that’s where it started. From that day until right now, I’ve got 183 movies.” – Danny Trejo (who made his screen debut here), Random Roles Interview - AV Club
A few years ago, the Tony Scott film UNSTOPPABLE came out and bore a lot of similarities to RUNAWAY TRAIN. However, instead of making it about two hardcore cons, they turned the heroes into nice-guy blue collar rail-workers and added a bunch of red herrings, including chemical gas that could destroy a small town and a train full of kids. There’s none of that in RUNAWAY TRAIN. Instead it’s just a white-knuckle battle for survival. Manny’s no hero, but if he’s going to die it’s going to be on his terms – and that’s where the drama of this movie lies.
Of course, Voight’s not the whole show, with Eric Roberts also having gotten an Oscar nod as the younger con hitching a ride with Manny. Unlike him, Roberts’ Buck is made out to be a little more sympathetic, being something of a simpleton and pleading his innocence regarding the statutory rape charge that landed him in stir. Like Voight, Roberts disappears into the part completely, and it ranks among his best work of the era, which includes other noteworthy turns in movies like THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, STAR 80 and KING OF THE GYPSIES. As the girl along for the ride, De Mornay, despite her sex symbol status, delivers an atypical performance. Covered in grime and unflattering work clothes, you’d never know this was the same lady who deflowered Tom Cruise to the strains of Tangerine Dream in RISKY BUSINESS only three years before.
As good as all the acting is, this is also an impeccably made film, with the modest $9 million budget obviously having been stretched to its breaking point. The stunt work is breathtaking, and the practical FX, which includes significant miniature work, is pitch-perfect. Brilliantly edited and thrillingly scored by Trevor Jones (EXCALIBUR, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS), RUNAWAY TRAIN is so brilliant you’d assume Konchalovsky went on to become one of the preeminent action directors of his era - but it never really happened. After a few low-key follow-ups for Cannon, he took a stab at the mainstream with the Sylvester Stallone/Kurt Russell vehicle TANGO & CASH, but apparently he didn’t finish the movie – even though he retains sole credit. Nowadays, he mostly works in his native Russia. Nevertheless, RUNAWAY TRAIN stands as a masterpiece, and an action flick no one who enjoys the genre can do without.
“The action sequences in the movie are stunning. Frequently in recent movies, I've seen truly spectacular stunts and not been much excited, because I knew they were stunts. All I could appreciate was their smoothness of execution. In "Runaway Train," as the characters try to climb along the sides of the ice-covered locomotives, as the train crashes through barriers and other trains, as men dangle from helicopters and try to kill the convicts, there is such a raw, uncluttered desperation in the feats that they put slick Hollywood stunts to shame.” - Roger Ebert’s four-star RUNAWAY TRAIN review
BEST SCENE: While I was tempted to use Manny’s man vs machine battle with the titular train, I can’t in good conscience spoil the film for those of you who haven’t seen it – which is probably a lot of you as it’s relatively obscure. Instead, here’s a taste of Voight lecturing Roberts about the reality of life as a con, with dialogue – I assume – by Bunker.
SEE IT: RUNAWAY TRAIN is widely available of Blu-Ray/DVD.
PARTING SHOT: While very atypical of the genre, especially for the eighties, RUNAWAY TRAIN is the same kind of elevated action flick as something like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, in that it proves that genre work can be just as artistically satisfying as non-genre work. A master class in tension, editing and acting, RUNAWAY TRAIN is one of the essential movies of its era, and one I hope many of you check out.