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‘Runaway Train’ Is an Action Movie with Brains

The Cannon Group’s train movie stays on track, which might surprise viewers who associate the studio with off the rails actioners.
Runaway Train
By  · Published on July 4th, 2020

Before the studio went bankrupt, The Cannon Group was synonymous with producing and distributing schlocky genre movies. Many of these movies involved ninjas, Charles Bronson, and Chuck Norris, and the studio wasn’t shy about spending the big bucks on truly bizarre blockbusters such as Lifeforce. Every once in a while, however, the studio struck gold with films that appealed to fans of prestige pictures. Runaway Train is one such movie.

Based on a story by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, the philosophical action-adventure earned Oscar nominations for its stars Eric Roberts and Jon Voight. Not many people discuss Runaway Train as one of the best of the 1980s these days, though, but this column is all about celebrating the underappreciated gems of yesteryear.

What’s it about?

Voight and Roberts play two escaped convicts who board a driverless train in Alaska. They just want to escape to freedom, but the train is out of control and heading toward disaster. It’s up to the fleeing criminals to survive the chaos, while also trying to evade the sadistic prison warden and law enforcement officers who are after them.

Voight plays Manny, a bank robber whom the warden deems so inhumane that he chose to weld the door to his cell shut for three years. Manny’s grudge against the warden is personal, and one of the reasons why he chose to break out of prison was to stick it to him personally. Roberts is Buck, an ill-equipped rapist who can’t resist a chance at freedom when the opportunity presents itself.

Rebecca DeMornay also appears as Sara, an engineer who must contend with a careening steam engine, as well as two criminals who find themselves at odds with each other. This requires her to be the voice of reason in a wildly dangerous predicament.

What makes it sublime?

Runaway Train is a stripped-back action-thriller, but director Andrei Konchalovsky fills the movie with intensity, suspense, ideas, and some truly impressive set pieces. Human beings climb icy locomotives and dangle from helicopters. The train barges through anything that gets in its way. The film more than delivers when it comes to the thrills and destruction, and Konchalovsky’s muscular and confident direction complements these moments spectacularly. The aerial action is especially good, but that’s, admittedly, one of my kinks.

The movie boasts some stunning snow-capped backdrops, and the mountain regions and scenic Alaskan countryside make for some eye-catching viewing. The wild terrains also add an extra element of danger and desolation to the proceedings which service the film’s anarchic sensibilities. This is the cold frontier and the outlaws are on the run.

It’s the performances that really stand out here, though. Voight is raw, guttural, and jaded. He also delivers an impassioned speech that ranks among the best performances of his career. Roberts, meanwhile, plays a petulant sidekick with aplomb, and he’s a strong counterpoint to Voight’s more self-assured character.

The film also poses some interesting questions about life and humanity, which explore ideas proposed by William Shakespeare to illustrate the thematic concepts. These moments are when Kurosawa’s influence really shines. The central characters are animals in many ways, but they aren’t without their moments of pity either. These are difficult characters to completely root for, but that’s what makes them fascinating.

“No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast.” – Richard III, William Shakespeare.

Manny is a character in search of redemption and freedom, but his animalistic tendencies are visible. He realizes that he’s wasted in life and wants to make amends. But he also understands that he’s a monster and not compatible with everyday society. I won’t spoil the movie, but this idea is enforced quite dramatically and things get emotional. There are scenes in Runaway Train that are quite transcendental, and that’s no small feat.

And in conclusion…

Runaway Train has more on its mind than your average action movie, and its nuanced exploration of the human condition will stick with you after the end credits roll. It’s just a shame that history has chosen to forget about the movie, especially considering that it gained awards recognition.

Cannon’s history will always be that of a reckless studio that delivered an abundance of trashy gems. Runaway Train, however, is a testament to the studio’s ability to make credible cinema from time to time. This movie deserves some reappraisal.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.