Classic Cannon: Runaway Train (1985)

Andrew reviews the pinnacle of Cannon Films' library, Runaway Train.

Sure is cold out here. 
When we think of Cannon Films, we tend to think of bizarre and often hilarious schlock so off the wall it defies objective analysis.  The idea of a Cannon Film being entered into the 1986 Cannes Film Festival and garnering not one but three Academy Award nominations seems unthinkable.  And yet, Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky's transcendent and vastly underrated white knuckle thriller Runaway Train made such a fantastical notion a red blooded reality.  Based on an original screenplay by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa with the intention of making his first English language color film before the ill-fated decision to direct Tora! Tora! Tora! came about, Runaway Train sat on the shelf for almost twenty years before catching the attention of Cannon Films chairmen Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus.  In a brief hiatus from the usual fare Cannon became notorious for, the maverick producers greenlit the long gestating project and gave its contract director-for-hire Konchalovsky total freedom to make Runaway Train as he saw fit.  The result is arguably one of the greatest action adventure films in the history of cinema, a brilliant, haunting and spectacular excitement that is as vast in scope as it is intimate in conviction to uncompromising character study.  The story is exceedingly simple: two inmates escape captivity from a maximum security Alaskan prison who make the mistake of boarding a boxcar whose driver dies while operating the vehicle, sending it careening through the Alaskan tundra with unstoppable force.  Films like Unstoppable, Speed, Money Train and The General come to mind with respect to runaway train genre films, but what separates Runaway Train from the pack is the splendid combination of superb technical filmmaking and rich characters which allow for leading actors Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay to give some of the best performances of their respective careers.

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Hug it out, bitch. 
You can tell watching Runaway Train that it was written by Akira Kurosawa.  Where Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker bring their own spin to the screenplay, the story is unmistakably Kurosawa's as his sensibilities, emotionalism and haunted sense of grandeur are all over the picture.  Initially the film begins grounded in the confines of the prison with Voight playing against type as a viciously violent prisoner who is welded to his cell, but once it traverses the open snow and ice covered terrain as the out of control locomotive barrels through Alaska like a bat out of Hell, we are treated to extraordinary vistas of the countryside and intense closeups of the vehicle continuing unabated on its ferocious journey.  We should know the trajectory of this kind of movie from afar, but Runaway Train surprises viewers both technically and contextually as the spiritual conflict of the two escaped convicts grows more intense and the tone of the film becomes increasingly haunted thanks to Trevor Jones apocalyptic and choral score.  Not since Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear and William Friedkin's remake Sorcerer has a film about ostensibly bad people caught in a harrowing fight for survival against unfathomable odds has an action thriller been this horrendously nerve racking.  There were times watching Runaway Train where I recoiled in my seat and tensed up as Voight, Roberts and De Mornay are locked in fight or flight mode doing all they can to escape the terror of their situation.  Cinematography by Alan Hume is extraordinary, with an impossible wide angle image of the front of the vehicle going full steam ahead as the countryside passes by.  Adding to the tension is the use of the telephoto zoomed lens from afar, making sequences of the characters attempting to move about the frozen boxcar that much faster as snow and wind blasts upon them.  The film is also ferociously and brilliantly edited by Henry Richardson, who was also nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the project.

Watch this trick. 
Roger Ebert famously called Runaway Train 'one of the best action adventure films that I've ever seen' and finally seeing the film in question unspool for the first time, I can say for as many genre thrillers I've seen in my lifetime I've never witnessed anything quite like Runaway Train.  Considered  by many filmmakers, actors and stunt men to be one of the prime examples of the action thriller, Runaway Train is that rare film where the intensity of the technical action is matched by the impassioned performances of the three leads.  Arguably the film's strongest scene involves an improvised monologue by Voight as he blasts Roberts for dreaming the so-called American Dream of having it all.  Watch Voight's eyes and forehead during this sequence and you can feel the boiling rage burning from his face.  Word has it this sequence was completely improvised by Voight and unlike the surrounding picture, it is a sequence of passionate characterization that grabs you by the throat harder than anything else in the movie.  Some may see it out of context as overacting, but in the framework of the film it comes from a real place and is projected by Voight with emotion and heart, a quality lacking in inferior, mercenary diversions that dare to call themselves action pictures.  

If anything, Runaway Train could be considered a spiritual remake to Steven Spielberg's Jaws because at the end of the day, it is not so much about the monster as it is about the people boxed into a corner by it.  Moreover, it is that rare action picture that presents in microcosm the little man going toe to toe with God.


- Andrew Kotwicki