Shortly before writing this review, I did a quick Google search for “Best Action Movies of the 1980s.” You can probably guess most of the titles that popped up at the top of the list: Die Hard, The Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, First Blood, Aliens, Predator, Top Gun, Robocop, Escape From New York and so on (E.T. also popped up for some reason – the internet works in mysterious ways). Notably absent from the list: Andrey Konchalovskiy's thrilling Runaway Train, starring Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy) and Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight).
There are a number of possible explanations for why Runaway Train has drifted off the pop culture radar. Maybe it's because the movie wasn't a big hit at the box office, failing to make back the entirety of its $9 million budget. Maybe it's that Jon Voight and Eric Roberts – despite earning Oscar nominations for their performances here - aren't exactly remembered as iconic action stars. Maybe it's that the film aspires to be more than an action movie, building to a finale that says more about human nature than it does about stuff blowing up real good. Regardless, it's a movie that deserves to find a new audience. Never mind the philosophical stuff: taken purely as an action movie, Runaway Train is every bit as thrilling as many of the films included on the above list.
Without hesitation, Runaway Train opens with thunderous energy. Stark, stylish credits feature a blood-red train racing across a pitch-black background, underscored by swishes, rips and hisses on the soundtrack. We then move to the beginning of a prison riot, where the inmates of Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison light things on fire and cheer lustily as they hear news that Oscar “Manny” Manheim (Voight) – a bank robber who has escaped the prison twice and has spent the last three years locked in solitary confinement – is being released back into the general prison population. Konchalovskiy directs this prologue as if he's conducting a feverish symphony, bringing the kind of mad excitement to the table that most directors save for their finales. You think the movie can't possibly escalate in tone, but it does.
Manny's toughness, bravery and intelligence have made him a hero to the prisoners, and no one looks upon him more admiringly than the scrappy, energetic young Buck McGeehy (Roberts). Upon being released from solitary confinement, Manny immediately begins planning a third escape and begrudgingly agrees to take Buck along with him. The escape is successful, but they have a long way to go before they're truly free. They make a long trek through the Alaskan wilderness (with Buck complaining the whole way) until they reach a train station. The plan is simple: they board a train, and once they've traveled a distance they'll get off. Alas, the train they choose has an engineer with a heart problem. The engineer keels over, the train keeps going, a series of technical mistakes are made and boom, Buck and Manny are stuck on a runaway train that's going faster by the minute.
Die Hard is often credited as the prototype for many popular action movies, but it could be argued that Runaway Train is every bit as much an influence on the likes of Speed, Unstoppable, Air Force One... heck, even Die Hard 2. The film sports more than its share of white-knuckle action sequences, as Voight and Roberts (and eventually Rebecca De Mornay, who joins the film around the halfway point) attempt to survive one perilous encounter after another while chugging along the tracks at increasingly furious speeds. Konchalovskiy stages these sequences with expert precision, bringing clarity and thrilling focus to all the clashing and crashing.
Even so, it's the human drama playing out within the train that proves most gripping. I've never seen Voight deliver a performance like the one he turns in here. Sporting a handlebar mustache, yellow teeth and an unpredictably violent demeanor, Voight digs deep into the angry, conflicted soul of a man smart enough to realize that freedom is an illusion. He understands his dark nature, and embraces it. “You're an animal!” one character tells him. “Worse!” he barks. “I'm a human.” The work Voight does in the film's final act is tremendously powerful; a striking reminder of what an exceptional actor he is when given the right material. Roberts is playing the sort of role that might have been forgettable in the hands of another actor, but he brings such a live-wire blend of boyish enthusiasm, pathetic neediness, sneering crudeness and (strangely enough) good-hearted innocence to the part that we can't take our eyes off him.
I found the film's almost absurdly melodramatic tone effective, as it accurately captures the mental state of the two men at its center. Even so, there are moments when the film becomes almost comical in its willingness to allow nearly every cast member to play most of their scenes with as much intensity as they can muster. “I NEED SHOES! I NEED SHOES! AND SOCKS!” Roberts yells during one of the movie's more low-key moments. It must also be admitted that there are a few scenes – just a few, mind you – that require a certain level of incompetence on the part of various supporting players for the sake of keeping the plot moving. I'm reminded of the aggravatingly dumb police chief in Die Hard, and of how effective that movie is in spite of that character.
The film's screenplay is adapted from a script written by Akira Kurosawa, who had planned to direct the film until weather issues got in the way of production. I don't know whether Kurosawa is responsible for the tone of the film's ending, but it certainly feels much closer to the spirit of his work than to conventional Hollywood action movies. The ending may baffle those expecting one final piece of spectacle, but it's so much more satisfying and thought-provoking than any explosive action scene could have been. Runaway Train is bold enough to remain true to its characters rather than to the traditional rules of expensive action-thrillers. It concludes with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard III, and the lines manage to simultaneously summarize and recontextualize everything we've seen:
"No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity."
"But I know none, and therefore am no beast."
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 1985