Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Cast: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay
Spoilers Within: No
Film 9 – #76 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
A great deal of Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train was a surprise to me: from Jon Voight and Eric Roberts’ nominations at the 58th Academy Awards; a screenplay based on the writings of Akira Kurosawa; and the production and distribution by schlock-masters Golan and Globus of Cannon Films. A casual understanding of those names is all you need to pinpoint how unique Runaway Train‘s existence is: a mid-80s action thriller from Cannon Films being nominated at the same ceremony as The Color Purple, Ran and Out of Africa. It’s baffling, and yet perfectly in line with its B-Movie sentiments.
Opening in an Alaskan maximum-security prison, each key player is introduced in a brutally brilliant boxing/riot sequence, both incidents leading to Manny (Voight) and Buck’s (Roberts) smartly paced escape into the frozen wilderness. Manny – a hardened convict serving solitary – and Buck – an impressionable novice – seek freedom on the out-of-control train. As the crux of the film is set solely in the train’s engineer cabin, it’s up to the leads (plus a mid-act assist from Rebecca De Mornay’s train worker) to wring tension and thrills out of the very simple situations that they find themselves in. These moments are interspersed with the control-room panic: each moment filled with archaic technological attempts at stopping the train before it careens into a brittle bridge or a chemical plant. These moments of terse dialogue are captivating and give more weight to the outright danger of the train and its deadly passengers.
Despite the implications of their Academy nominations, both Voight and Roberts play their roles with excessive exaggeration: the latter being particularly overblown and whiny, which is both down to his character’s inexperience and Roberts’ inflated acting. It pairs well with Voight at times, but he’s often more obnoxious than not. De Mornay doesn’t fare much better either, an actress who entirely passed me by (and exists primarily in a Karl Pilkington anecdote) and didn’t exactly impress here, though she did show hints of ability toward the end. It’s Manny and prison warden Ranken’s (an intense role by John P. Ryan, who was certainly more deserved of a nomination than Roberts) looming conflict that gives the film its strongest components, even when they’re separated for most of the running time.
In the end, Runaway Train is a thrilling, absorbing action film that is perhaps enriched by its behind-the-scenes history, but one that could have been much more praiseworthy if the acting had been befitting of the nominations. It’s definitely worth your time, if only for the vivid atmosphere of each scenario, and the rivalry between Manny, the world, and everybody in it.