“No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast.” – Shakespeare’s King Lear
Man versus machine action movie grounded in reality. Runaway Train (1985) is one of the best action thrillers of the 1980’s, it’s got depth plus fierce snowstorm scenery. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts garnered Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Supporting Actor respectively, rare for an action movie. They play Manny and Buck, two Alaskan convicts who hitch on a four-locomotive train that loses the driver to a heart attack. The lead car, an ancient piece of steel operating now at torrent speeds, has no walkway and after a first collision, is burdened by a doorjamb. A third survivor, a woman (Rebecca DeMornay) with some rail yard experience, offers advice on how they can slow down the train.
Early scenes set at the maximum security prison are among the best of their kind for a tough, merciless prison movie. I was recently impressed by the Spanish prison thriller “Cell 211” (2010), especially for its parade of truly vicious looking convicts. Manny and Buck are equally brutal enough for this prison hellhole. After Manny has served three years in the hole, the warden (implied) has provided a lackey prisoner a knife to stab Manny to death in exchange for special privileges. You can stab Manny in the gut and through the hand, but this is not the kind of guy who can be defeated by just a stabbing.
Voight has had a significant career, although it has been a dispersed one (he’s effective in about 1 of every 5 movies he makes). His Manny character really harkens back to his career-making performance of Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture. Like Joe Buck, Manny is scarred by a terrible childhood and poor education, and has lived desperately rummaging for scraps. The difference is that Manny has been molded into a violent, merciless animal of a human being. As for Roberts, he gave one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen as a sociopath in “Star 80” (1983), finally got Oscar recognition for this movie, but has spent the rest of his career untapped and under-utilized in hundreds of rubbish roles. My myth-building theory: He was too great for his own good playing sadistic, cruel and aggravatingly panicky men in these early roles and could not break away from the stigma.
The prison break of these two guys is obligatory and inevitable, but the directing and physical structure of the scene is plausible just the same. Some men would not be able to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, but these guys hack it. Manny finds clothes, Buck is happy about some real shoes, and before long, they are on a train. The screenplay doesn’t waste time setting up the gimmick. The train takes off, the engineer suffers a heart attack, it is unmanned and on throttle for 90 mph. Some screenplays would have wasted ten pages before getting to the gimmick. Speed and velocity, unfathomable Alaskan locations that are so cold you’d think it was Antarctica, two battling convicts with short fuse tempers – this is all you need. Well, a third bystander character in danger and a fourth antagonist (the warden) is helpful in bringing tension.
The woman on the train is truly in danger of physical harm by these two guys, but is able to sway their attention onto the serious situation of a train possibly derailing if something is not done. But once the Alaskan prison warden is trailing them from a hovering helicopter, the two convicts might not necessarily want the train to slow down to a stop either. The film cuts away to a bunch of panicky radio dispatchers (Kenneth McMillan, T.K. Carter) directing railroad traffic, which is surprisingly effective as well as expository as to telling us what the technical stakes are about.
“Runaway Train” is simply effective for being a staggering visual experience. However, the film uses a final Shakespeare quote for closure, not depending on demonstration of action. Most action films wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Somehow, it’s an ending with the right touch because Manny’s fate seemed to be predestined from long before time. We’re fascinated by Manny’s relinquishment to his fate, and not as fascinated by some action gimmick. It works.
Based on an unused Akira Kurosawa (“The Hidden Fortress,” “High and Low”) screenplay.
111 Minutes. Rated R.
ACTION / RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK THRILLER / LATE NIGHT CHILLS