Saturday 26 November 2022

Movie Review: Runaway Train (1985)

A thriller combining prison dramatics, kinetic action, and cryptic philosophy, Runaway Train is a surprisingly effective mishmash.

Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) is the toughest inmate at Alaska's remote Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. A court order forces Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) to release him from three years of solitary confinement. The two men resume a duel, and Manny is injured in a knifing arranged by Ranken. He accelerates his latest breakout plan and escapes through the sewer system, with fellow prisoner Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) tagging along.

Buck: [in the sewer] It stinks in here, man.
Manny: You don't like that smell? That's the smell of freedom, brother.

The two men traverse the snowy wilderness to a rail switchyard, were they secretly jump onto a short train consisting of four locomotives. The engineer suffers a heart attack, leaving the train hurtling at high speeds. With Ranken pursuing the escapees, control centre dispatchers Dave Prince (T. K. Carter) and Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) scramble to clear other trains out of the way. Manny and Buck have to survive each other and look for ways to stop the runaway, and are then shocked to find locomotive hostler Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) with them on the train.

Manny: I'm at war with the world and everybody in it.

Based on a story by Akira Kurosawa, Runaway Train is assembled from contrasting pieces yet somehow works. Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and Edward Bunker collaborated on the screenplay, and wedge-in an overheated prison drama, a wild and chilly ride on a brakeless train, unpredictable character dynamics, and finally a turn towards hallowed acts of redemption. Director Andrei Konchalovsky approaches the material with a no-compromise attitude and plenty of gumption, repeatedly betting on a no-half-measures approach and scoring impressive wins in words, actions, and visuals. Once the action moves to the frigid outdoors, cinematographer Alan Hume creates a mystical grey aesthetic, the runaway train piercing terrain more than capable of consuming human incursions.

Suitably occupying the plot's centre is Jon Voight's scenery chewing performance as Manny. His brutal nature is more talked about than demonstrated, although he survives a knifing with barely a grimace. Using an off-centre accent, Manny's lines of dialogue flow from a tortured poet's soul, an emotionally wounded human beast refusing captivity and aware no other place suits him. 

Sara: [tearfully] You're an animal!
Manny: No, worse! Human. Human!

One monster deserves another, and the antagonist Warden Ranken is a worthwhile and dogged adversary, the jailer evolving into an amalgam of the men he keeps locked up. Eric Roberts attempts to inject jokey comic relief with limited effect. Rebecca De Mornay fares better as the resourceful civilian witnessing the unfolding high speed drama from under layers of grease and dirty coveralls. 

The film's thematic heart is the function and purpose of men like Manny in a modern society. Fearless, indestructible, resolute, and incapable of adhering to any rules, here he is free in the wild, his last available environment. This thoughtful brute is confronting dwindling options, but Manny will still choose the train and only ride on his own terms.

Manny: Win, lose, what's the difference?

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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