A Runaway Hit -- Really, A Smash!

The next collaboration isn't ready yet, so I decided to treat myself to one of Cannon's most atypically lauded offerings...


Runaway Train - 1985
See link for complete writing credits
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy
With Jon Voight, Eric Roberts & Rebecca DeMornay

While the history of Cannon Films is defined by low-brow id-chow, Menahem Golan occasionally liked to hire a prestigious director (often from Europe) to make a movie for Cannon that would dilute their reputation for crap.  He bundled these with the usual brain-dead carnography so that theater owners who wanted the latest Bronson or Norris xenophobic murder porn would also have to take the fancy-pantsy art-house fare.  While I don't think that necessarily implies that he secretly had a sense of taste that he otherwise chose not to use, he still didn't have to make Zefirelli's Otello or Reggio's Powaqqatsi.  Maybe his ego needed the legitimacy, but his business model didn't necessarily.  They could have gone just as far if not farther by continuing to shovel the shit -- McDonald's certainly has.

Runaway Train was one of Cannon Films' biggest and most successful "prestige" titles, and not without cause.  It's a gritty, rock-solid action adventure film that eschews the traditional Hollywood need to make everyone likeable, and lets some of the light of actual character depth shine through.

The story is more-or-less as simple as it sounds.  Notorious criminal and habitual jail-breaker Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight as his most anti-social) and his hero-worshipping sidekick, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) break out of a brutal Alaskan penitentiary, then hop a train to freedom, little realizing that the train's conductor has just had a heart attack and pitched over the side of the train.  By the time they discover they're on a Runaway Train it may be too late to do anything about it.  That's the plot, but it's not the whole story.  That structure is ornamented with tense action on both small and grand scales, and embossed with moments of humanity where Buck's admiration for Manny becomes evident, and where Manny's reactions reveal that he wants nothing of the sort for Buck, recognizing that it was that kind of naive, young buck stupidity that made his life the kind of waste that necessitated a talent for jail-breaking at all.  Indeed, he wants nothing of the sort for himself, but fatalistically accepts the limited number of choices with which he has left himself.

Legendary Japanese director is credited with the original story idea, which appears to have gone through a number of drafts along the way.  As a viewer who approached this not merely as another movie, but the product of Golan & Globus, I experienced a kind of tension throughout, wondering where the next words spoken were going to come from.  Would it be a moment of insightful humanity?  Tense exposition?  Uber-macho and heavily stereotyped prison color?  The director, Andrey Konchalovskiy doesn't appear to have made an action movie before this, but he handles it with all appropriate tension.  Runaway Train apparently got him hired for Tango & Cash (an above-average Stallone film), and Tango & Cash apparently put him off action.  His refined palette of film-making choices smooth out some of the rough spots in the script and make Runaway Train much more than it needed to be.

Jon Voight was still doing some of his best work at this point in his career -- not the mere casual gravitas that he's settled into, but when he was really cooking, and filled his characters with yearning, fire and pain.  It's not often that you see a character thinking while they're speaking.  The last time it really struck me was Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, but Voight has that here in Runaway Train too.  Manny is not an innocent man falsely accused.  He is a lifelong con who knows nothing else and is only too happy to take violent offense at the least perceived sleight.  He is a desperate criminal, and shows it.

Now, I've developed a pretty solid rule of thumb over the past few years.  Is Eric Roberts in a given movie?  If yes, then you can usually be pretty sure that it's not a good movie.  It's not that Roberts is terrible (he's wildly inconsistent), so much as he makes terrible, horrible choices.  In Runaway Train, he has a director that figured out how to get the most out of him, even if that's still inconsistent.  Roberts is sort of the Lenny to Voight's George.  Rather than asking about the rabbits, Buck fantasizes about the next big score, hopefully with Manny as his partner, and their eventual flight to the criminal equivalent of "milk & honey."  Much of Roberts' career has been spent playing seething creeps and sneering villains, but it's here, as an ignorant, dumb punk, that he gives one of his better performances, inconsistencies and all.

The surprise member of their trainbound trio is Sara (Rebecca DeMornay), the conductor's young assistant.  Like Roberts, she's playing against what would later become her established "type."  She's not just scared, she's vulnerable.  The strength she displays doesn't come from any inflated sense of confidence, but from that place of calm certainty that comes from accepting one's own responsibility for keeping oneself alive.

I really found the production texture interesting on Runaway Train.  There IS a sort of sheen of cheapness on it, but it's also clear that they spent on the kind of things that show up on the screen in a more direct way.  There's a lot of external action on a train speeding through snow (and other obstacles) and that clearly cost money.  In fact, a lot of the snowy exteriors look like they must have taken effort and expense to get to and shoot.

While I certainly enjoy the occasional spectacle, Runaway Train is the kind of movie that's just a good movie.  It doesn't have to rely on explosions to give it life.  It focuses on lives to make it explosive.

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