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Runaway Train
1985 - R - 111 Mins.
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Producer: Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus
Written By: Edward Bunker, Djordje Milicevic and Paul Zindel
Starring: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, Kyle T. Heffner, John P. Ryan
Review by: Bill King
Cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were big names in the '80s. With their Canon Group company and the recognizable "A Golan-Globus Production" stamp on their films, the two released some of the more popular movies during the decade. Even the bad ones, such as "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," are instantly identifiable. While much of their films fall under the category of "bad," there have been a few bright spots. "Runaway Train" (1985) is perhaps their best effort, a film of such high artistic integrity that one would wonder how Golan-Globus could have had anything to do with it.

The film takes place in the cold landscapes of Alaska. A maximum security prison located in the middle of nowhere in this state is akin to Alcatraz Island, in that the surrounding elements make a suitable barrier for anyone trying to escape. Manny (Jon Voight) is the scariest inmate within the confines of the prison. So much so, that the warden, Renken (John P. Ryan), has welded Manny into his cell for three years, until he is forced to cut the bars due to a Cruel and Unusual Punishment lawsuit. No matter, because Renken practically hopes that Manny will escape, so that he can have an excuse to kill him.

The other inmates respect Manny, and he has many loyal followers who are willing to do his bidding. Once such prisoner is Buck (Eric Roberts), who works for the prison laundry. He helps Manny escape, but the lure of freedom is too strong to resist, and Buck asks Manny if he can come along. Once the two escape, they battle the elements until they reach an isolated train station.

From the title of the movie, we gather that Manny and Buck will find themselves on a train that is out of control. Indeed, that is exactly what happens as the engineer dies of a heart attack, leaving the engine on a speed too fast for even the breaks to stop it. They meet one lone passenger, a rail worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), who explains that their only chance is to slow down the train by disconnecting a certain cable between each of the four cars. This proves easier said than done, because balancing on slippery metal platforms at 70+ mph with the wind biting at your skin provides for a difficult display of endurance and strength. With the speed increasing, Manny and Buck rely on their wits and resourcefulness to figure out what to do.

Meanwhile, the managers of a railway station try to solve the problem by rerouting other trains and switching tracks to allow the runaway train to keep moving without crashing and hurting anyone. As the train speeds along the icy tracks, they run out of options and less appealing solutions present themselves. When Renken learns that his escaped prisoners are on the train, he sweeps aside all notions of practicality to go on revenge-driven quest to dispose of the one prisoner he couldn't control.

"Runaway Train" is an exemplary action film with running themes concerning the nature of man and what he's capable of in the harshest conditions. There is a moment when Manny gives a speech to Buck about what their future holds that is a telling point about his realization of their place in the world. He chose a long life of crime, but he arrives at a crossroads in his life, when he considers that crime cost him a respectable future. The film is also about the breakdown of the human spirit in an immensely savage environment. At one point, Manny and Buck turn on each other in a moment of rage, and Sara shouts "Kill him!" as if to suggest that her exposure to their presence has somehow degenerated her own good senses.

The ending is a moment of pure poetic greatness. It is a highly charged yet quiet scene of contemplation and awe. As the credits role, the final image burns into our memory, and we sit quietly, pondering over what we saw, and we know that what will happen must happen, because any other solution would be a cop-out. Director Andrei Konchalovsky wants us to make a connection between Manny's speech to Buck and his final decision.

With all the positive things I've said about "Runaway Train," you might think I'm giving this movie my utmost praise, but I am not. There are two elements of the film that hurt the movie's final standing. One is Eric Roberts' performance. He's a fine actor, and I know he was going for a faithful-puppy kind of person. His Buck latches onto Manny and is intoxicated by his presence. However, Roberts is almost constantly whining and talking to himself, using an irritating accent that hurt my ears. There were only a few scenes when I forgot about this problem, but those scenes are too few.

I have described the ending as a brilliant way to close the film, but that's only if you ignore one badly miscalculated decision by the screenwriters and the director, and that was to attach a quote from Shakespeare's "Richard III." Consider the ending without the quote. We see what we see, are emotionally involved in the moment, the music by Trevor Jones providing the perfect complement. Then the film fades to the credits, with the music continuing uninterrupted, the final shot lingering in our minds. That's a powerful ending, but to add the quote is a disruption. Instead of letting the last shot sink in, our minds must change gears abruptly to read the quote and interpret it, to see how it's relevant to Manny's character. Unfortunately, one day after I've seen the movie, I'm no closer to understanding what the quote itself is even saying. It was unnecessary to insert this line from "Richard III," so I just imagine the ending without it, because to do so is far more rewarding.

What we have in "Runaway Train" is a tightly packed, intense and thrilling action film, but with enough nods to character and structure that it rises above the normal crop of action films. Jon Voight is riveting in his portrayal as Manny. He's fierce, to be sure, but he's also fascinating to watch. Rebecca De Mornay is equally impressive. She has a smaller role, but that doesn't stop her from standing out with her intelligence. Even with its flaws, there's still a wealth of worthy components to be found here, and seeking this film out will not disappoint.
Movie Guru Rating
An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater. An excellent film.  Among the best in its Genre.  Worth seeing in the Theater.
  4 out of 5 stars

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