Label: Twilight Time
Released: October 11, 2016
Genre: Drama / Action
Synopsis: Two escaped convicts become trapped on a runaway train in ice cold Alaska.
Special Features: Audio commentary with actor Eric Roberts and film historians David Del Valle and Courtney C. Joyner / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
Runaway Train is a perfect action-drama, and perhaps the best film produced and released by Cannon Films, a company that succeeded due to its emphasis on neatly packaged B-flicks for the international exploitation market.
The lore surrounding its origins is no les impressive: Akira Kurosawa had reportedly set up a four-film deal with indie producer / impresario Joseph E. Levine in 1965, with Lee Marvin and Henry Fonda cast in the main roles of two convicts on the run after breaking out of a brutal prison, but the planned shoot in upstate New York never happened, leaving the 300 page script on the shelf until it somehow made its way to Cannon and director Andrei Konchalovsky.
Three writers took a crack at the script – Djordje Milicevic, who penned the WWII POW soccer drama Victory (1981); playwright Paul Zindel, who wrote Konchalovsky’s drama Maria’s Lovers (1984); and Edward Bunker, a former convict at Folsom who wrote of his experiences in the novel and screenplay Straight Time (1978) – but it was Bunker who knocked Kurosawa’s epic tome down to 90 pages, and added his own prison details to create the vivid backstory for felons Manny (Jon Voight) and boxer Buck (Eric Roberts).
The first half hour introduces the two men and the horrible living conditions at an Alaskan penitentiary, Buck’s boxing strengths in the ring (battling the great Danny Trejo, in his first film), the pair’s late night escape, and the loathsome Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who kept Manny literally welded in his cell for three years because the convict was ‘less than an animal.’
Once the pair hop onto a train, the movie’s real action and disaster components shift into gear, as does the first score cues, which give scenes of the train in motion extra punch. The leanness of the story also makes this an uncluttered drama that allows the relationship between Manny and Buck to deepen with many intimate moments of solemnity, or pure violent rage. When train worker Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) enters the scene, things become more emotionally explosive.
The script smartly dispenses with any sexual tension within the first minutes of Sara’s first scenes, making her part of a desperate trio who must use wits to survive, but also enmeshed in the complex relationship of raging Manny and immature Buck.
Manny doles out both cruelty and hard, sage advice to Buck – Voight’s monologue on getting a job cleaning bathrooms is one of his finest screen moments – and their scenes of desperation are contrasted with the far off train technicians trying to prevent a disaster as new computer technology and proactive strategies prove useless, and Ranken’s gleeful helicopter hunt (‘Let’s have some fun!’) as the train starts to pass through mountain tunnels and ultimately heads for a dead end track.
Fans of Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010) will find more than a few parallels in Runaway Train – the interlocked machine is treated as a living beast gone awry; also potent is the hopelessness felt by technicians, dispatchers, and the police, and the unavoidable disaster as the train is headed for a turn besides a chemical factory that it can’t make at 90 mph; and attempts to derail and send a man to stop the train via helicopter and ladder prove futile – but this is a film in which a co-star of equal stature as Voight and Ryan is the beastly daisy-chained four locomotives.
It’s first appearance, emerging from a wispy, wintry morning mist, ignites Trevor Jones’ first full cue, which instantly characterizes the train as a cranky, temperamental, stubborn son of a bitch.
Like Unstoppable, with the exception of models used in exceptional crash sequences, what’s shown are real trains, and the beast is gradually transformed into a mangled hulk of doom, with the vestiges of a head-on crash dangling from the busted-up first engine.
It’s a mythic tale of two opposites who finally meet head-on in a choreographed moment of beautiful madness, with former prisoner Manny exacting sweet revenge on chief tormentor Ranken, which Konchalovsky and cinematographer Alan Hume capture in one of the most memorable final shots in Film. Scored with elegiac chorals from Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D Major,” it’s a fitting finale to a tale that’s propelled by operatic dramatic beats as two foes taunt each other with increasingly somber, futile bravado.
The stunning quality of Runaway Train shocked Cannon’s Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, and the Go-Go Boys ordered offices to focus on promoting their unintended A-level drama to audiences, critics, and the Oscar’s voting body, which ultimately bestowed the film with three nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Voight, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Roberts, and Best Film Editing for Henry Richardson’s brilliant invisible cuts.
31 years since its release, Runaway Train just keeps aging into a finer drama, with intense action scenes and the dynamic relationship between two losers and a sadistic warden. De Mornay’s also strong in a wholly unglamorous role, which perhaps enabled her to be cast as a pilot in the underrated cable TV drama By Dawn’s Early Light, directed by Jack Sholder (The Hidden).
The film also showcases one of Roberts’ and Voight’s best performances, as well as Ryan, who manages to add depth to a character lesser actors could’ve played as a straight sadist. Ranken is a monster, but he knows when to be civil, when to boast, and when to beat the crap out of a weasel in the privacy of a washroom, recompose himself, and pat his victim on the shoulder afterwards in a condescending sign of faux respect (as happens to a mouthy train technician).
Jones’ score, isolated on Twilight Time’s lovely Blu-ray, is the one element that’s dated, and yet the thick electronica manages to accent desperation with the composer’s patented use of sustained bass drones, female voice, and Japanese flute, and adrenalize already kinetic sequences as the trio of trapped characters attempt to shut down the train by themselves.
TT’s disc also includes a newly recorded commentary track with film historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner, both of whom served time at Cannon, and provide insight into the company’s colourful history and peak years; and co-star Roberts, who recounts working with the film’s director, co-stars and supporting actors (including Kenneth McMillan, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister), and performing some stunts.
The HD transfer is very crisp, and showcases the slightly grainy, desaturated look which gives the film a loose documentary veneer, and the original Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is very punchy.
Julie Kirgo’s essay adds some backstory to the former Kurosawa project, and rightly praises a movie that in Cannon’s eyes began as a straight action flick, but due to the sublime talent involved, became a remarkable classic. (It’s also stated in the commentary that because Konchalovsky had made a prior film for the Go-Go Boys, he knew their mandate was to deliver a neatly packaged product; all Konchalovsky or any director had to do was fulfill those core obligations, and the boys would pretty much leave him alone to make his film.)
Britain’s Arrow Films released their own special edition in 2013 (now very OOP) which contains separate interview featurettes with Roberts, Voight, actor Kyle T. Heffner, and director Konchalovsky, plus a trailer commentary (!) with Rod Lurie.
Konchalovsky’s career also benefitted from his association with Cannon, as the Russian director made four films that stand out from Cannon’s standard action fodder: Maria’s Lovers (1984), Runaway Train (1985), Duet for One (1986), and Shy People (1987).
The history of Cannon films was documented in two films: Electric Boogaloo – The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014), in which Del Valle appears, and The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films (2014).
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review