Runaway Train (United States, 1985)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Long before Keanu Reeves was stuck on board a speeding bus, Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca De Mornay were trapped on a runaway train. And, while there are significant differences between Jan De Bont's Speed and Andrei Konchalovsky's 1985 thriller, Runaway Train, the films share two fundamental similarities: ferocious pacing and white-knuckle excitement. Each picture features its own take on an unstoppable, high-velocity vehicle racing towards its doom.

Although Speed is a very good movie, Runaway Train is a more complete experience. The script is better-written, depending more on visceral thrills than those enhanced by special effects (that's not to say that Runaway Train is visually defective -- in fact, it's solid). The characters are better-rounded, and there is a fascinating exploration of man's primal instinct. Runaway Train belongs to a rare genre: the intelligent thriller. It will come as no surprise to educated movie-goers to learn that the script, credited to Djordeje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and Edward Bunker, is based on an original screenplay devised by the Japenese master, Akira Kurosawa. One can almost imagine Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune in the role given to Jon Voight.

Not that Voight doesn't place his own indelible stamp on the part of Manny, a hardened criminal who is serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison in Alaska. Manny has recently spent three years locked in solitary confinement. Upon his release, he is hailed as a hero by the rest of the prison population. One of his most ardent fans is Buck (Eric Roberts), a dumb, garrulous, cocky rapist whose job pushing laundry carts becomes a critical element of Manny's escape plan. With Buck tagging along, Manny makes his way through the sewers under the prison, out into the cruel Alaskan wilderness, and to a remote train station. There, the two stowaway on a 4-engine train headed south, unaware that the engineer has died of a heart attack, and the only one else on board is Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), a female maintenance worker. The train is out of control and rushing down the tracks towards a collision with destiny.

Runaway Train uses a mix of diverse elements to create a highly-suspenseful whole. There's the nasty Warden (John P. Ryan) who yearns for a one-on-one confrontation with his most hated prisoner, and is willing to risk his own life to get on board the speeding train. There are the men at the railroad control station, desperately trying to divert other trains out of the path of the speeding engine, while weighing how important three lives are compared to the economic cost to the railway. Most importantly, there are the characters aboard the train and the taut dynamic that exists between them. We see a microcosm of humanity at its most base and noble through them, as their desperate circumstances drive them to acts of terrible brutality and surprising heroism. Runaway Train closes with an apt quote from Shakespeare's "Richard III" that reinforces another of the film's themes about the animalistic nature of human beings: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast."

The most electric scene of the film takes place around the three-quarters mark, and reveals key, primal aspects of each individual's personality. It's a showdown between Manny and Buck over machismo, sacrifice, and friendship. The two circle each other, Manny with a knife, Buck with a wrench. "I thought you was my friend! Don't make me kill you, Manny!" shouts Buck. Manny sneers. Although his hand is badly injured, it never occurs to him that Buck is a real threat. Meanwhile, along the periphery of the struggle, the seemingly-mild Sara screams at Buck, "Kill him!" It's a raw moment that not only keeps us on the edge of our seat, but gives us real insight into how these characters react in such dire circumstances. What follows after, as the film arcs to a climax, is believable because of what emerges during this confrontation.

The three lead actors all give strong performances, and are ably assisted by a solid supporting cast. Jon Voight captivates in one of the most memorable screen roles of his distinguished career, imbuing Manny with both a fierce energy and a surprisingly keen intellect. This is definitely not a common, stereotypical criminal. Eric Roberts, playing against type as a mentally-limited individual, presents Buck almost as a puppy dog who follows Manny around. Rebecca De Mornay abandons her glamorous image for layers of dirt and ragged clothes. Although De Mornay is not known for her range, she is singularly effective in this part.

When Runaway Train was produced, the action genre was undergoing a change from character-driven movies to pyrotechnics-based flicks. Of the thrillers developed after this one, only a select few -- Die Hard and perhaps one or two others -- have achieved this level of tautness without compromising the intelligence of the plot. Best of all, in more than a decade since its release, Runaway Train has aged exceptionally well. It is just as compelling today as it was during the winter of 1985-86.

Runaway Train (United States, 1985)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 1986-01-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1