Runaway Train (1985)

I’ve dropped this same sorta anecdote into other reviews of older films that I’ve done before and unfortunately, Dear Reader…it’s time for another trip down Memory Lane, to that wonderful time that was the 1980’s, into the phenomenon known as The Video Store. Even though my father is a talented musician, somehow movies instead were programmed solidly into my DNA at a really young age. The weekly trip to the local shop was magical to me and I loved to roam the aisles, usually checking out the gnarly art work and pictures in the Sci-Fi / Horror section. THIS video cassette cover was one that always stood out to me, largely because I distinctly remember 5 key films (for me anyway) that came out in theatres earlier in The Year of Our Lord 1985; ‘D.A.R.Y.L.’, ‘The Last Star Fighter’, ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’, ‘Enemy Mine’…and this one (with a special shout-out to ‘The Goonies’!). Now, to be fair, this movie ended up not even making back it’s $9 000 000 production budget, so it certainly wasn’t a hit, but for some reason, the gritty images of this speeding locomotive from the TV spots stuck with me. There was also the reviews that said the movie was brutal and violent (yep, it is). Being an 8 year old lower middle-class boy at the time, I was all for crazy violence and adult themes in my entertainment! But it wasn’t a flick that ever came home with us for Family Movie Nights and I never caught it on video or SuperChannel at a friends. Over the years, I’ve seen a few snippets from it, just enough to remind me that this title is One of the Ones That Got Away. So a couple years ago, I located a copy and had it sitting in my Must See Queue…but just didn’t get around to it. Until today. I had every intention of sauntering on down to our local marquee for a matinee (some cool titles playing right now!), but after a morning trail walk with my fiance’ and our dog, an ankle I sprained last Monday began giving me shit again, therefore offing any ideas I’d been entertaining about walking anywhere. Could I have driven? Sure, I guessShut up!! So I took my grievous injury as my excuse to FINALLY touch this memory from my childhood.
‘Runaway Train’ focus’ on a pair of escaped convicts from a maximum security prison in Alaska. ‘Manny’ (Jon Voight) is a celebrated prisoner who had just won an appeal to be released from a welded solitary confinement cell, only to go head-to-head with his nemesis, ‘Warden Ranken’ (John P. Ryan), pushing ‘Manny’ to pull off his daring escape plan. The other is ‘Buck’ (Eric Roberts), a dim-witted follower with more balls than brains, who has a tendency to whine a lot. After fleeing into the frigid Alaskan wilderness, they manage to stow away on a multi-engine freight train. Problem is, somewhere along the way, the conductor pitches over dead from a heart attack, leaving the train accelerating across the icy landscape. While trying to figure out what to do, they run into ‘Sara’ (Rebecca De Mornay), a railway employee who is also trapped on board.

SO…after tossing some ice around my swollen ankle and cracking my last beer of the week, I grabbed my notepad and hit PLAY:

-Akira Kurosawa? Interesting. This man is a legend, not only as a renowned Japanese director and writer, but simply as a masterful director in general, one of the finest to have touched the medium of film in the last 60 years. I usually associate his name with the old school samurai flicks, so to see his name pop up in what seems to me to be a very American story (directed by a Russian) during the opening credits caught me off guard.

-Eric Roberts’ accent…a bit much. His character…also a bit much. So right from the get-go, Eric Roberts’ ‘Buck’ starts getting on my nerves. He’s rocking this forced- sounding Southern accent and has this silly habit of whooping and yelling every few minutes…or so it seemed.

-Danny Trejo?! Yep, you read that correctly. Danny Muthafuckin Trejo is in da house!! Actually, interesting bit of trivia: this was Trejo’s first film role. He was on set as a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor to a member of the crew and was offered a small role because they liked his look. And so the legend was born.

-Tough Guy Jon Voight. Right off the bat, ‘Manny’ is a threatening, growly dude with a toque and gold tooth, snarling his way through his line deliveries like he’s got his eyes on an Oscar.

-Cool style, gritty. Pretty much says it right there. There is a definite attempt to convey an in-the-trenches feeling in the cinematography. There’s a definite rawness to it, that helps accent the relentlessly bleak tone.

-HaHa!! Scrawny Trejo! Yep, Danny Trejo is so cool, I had to mention him twice. Earlier when I noted Dan’s appearance, it was almost a guess that it was him, given how quickly the shot is. But then is seems that his role was expanded and he ended up as Eric Robert’s boxing opponent in a prison match.

-Fuck! Knife through the hand!! As with pretty much EVERY prison movie out there, there’s the inevitable ‘gonna shiv a mothafucka’ scene, and during one such interaction, Voight gets a sharp-ass knife graphically stabbed through his hand.

-Tiny ‘Zeus’ Lister?! Yep, another of these tough guys types getting their start in this flick. I’ll always remember him, as most of the civilized world does, as ‘Deebo’ from ‘Friday’ (1995), but he was another scrawny looking lil bitch back in the day…at least comparatively speaking.

-Movie defines ‘Discomfort’. Sewer scene. There’s NOTHING warm and fuzzy about this flick. From the opening credits to the last shot…it’s Discomfort City. The scene that prompted this scribble was the initial escape, where ‘Manny’ and ‘Buck’ Andy Dufresne their asses though a half-full, freezing cold shit pipe, openly acknowledging what it is they’re crawling through.

-Inconvenient moment for a jammer. This would be the moment the train conductor clutched at his chest and keeled off the train, minutes after ‘Manny’ and ‘Buck’ jumped onto the caboose. Pure coincidence kicks Act 2 off.

-Voight going for an Oscar. Intense dude. There were a few moments that I would call ‘Oscar Bait’ moments, where he just kicks the scenery-chewing up to 11. It verges on funny.

-Shades of ‘Unstoppable’. Obviously there’s the out-of-control train connection to the late Tony Scott’s last film ‘Unstoppable’ (2010), but there’s also key incidents in ‘Runaway Train’ that make me wonder how much influence it had on the screenwriting process for that unstoppably exciting film.

-Love the mangled train engine. At one point, the train smashes it’s way through the ass-end of another that’s too slow pulling into a side track and royally smacks up the front of the lead engine. It made me think of the evil Green Goblin semi-truck from ‘Maximum Overdrive’ (1986), in that this out-of-control inanimate object has an eerie uniqueness for the rest of it’s harrowing journey.

-That’s a young looking Rebecca DeMornay. Not too glamorous either. But always cute. I always had a bit of a thing for DeMornay, especially in her prime during the 80’s. She’s not my usual ‘type’, but something just worked. But most films had a tendency to play up her sexiness but this one is a notable exception to that. She’s scruffed up, with short pigtails, and coveralls and a helmet. There also wasn’t very little make-up…or so it seemed.

-Some acting goes over the top. Not too much, enough to be noticed. Again, you could easily tie this one back to Voight’s frequent attempts at baiting The Academy (in fairness, he WAS nominated), but Eric Roberts at times also goes over-the-top with some of his deliveries. I found it cartoon’d up the bleak and serious nature of the source material just a wee bit too much.

-A lot of sexy cinematography. As mentioned earlier there’s definitely a documentary feel to the visual aesthetic, but there’s also a fair share of nice, wide-angle shots to round it out. It felt competent enough to be sure of it’s style.

-Filming must’ve been a bitch! It’s a testament to the filmmakers that I had to write this. There looks like there was a nice of chunk of location filming, using real trains at high speed. However, in doing some reading prior to this Opinion Spew, it seems that there’s a lot more visual trickery at work than I realized, and to that, I salute their efforts.

-“Sucka!” If the character of ‘Manny’ needs a headstone, they better carve this word into that bastard. He says this CONSTANTLY…and it sounds hilarious, especially when he’s getting all riled up. Seriously, it’s Drinking Game worthy.

-Wait. She’s all weepy over a dude who earlier had strongly insinuated that rape was forth coming? Yea, this is where I thought that another pass at the script may have been a good idea, as one of the first things out of Eric Robert’s mouth when they realize ‘Sara’ is a woman, is something to the effect of “Are you ready for a good fuck?!”. Then, when he and ‘Manny’ have a falling out and ‘Buck’ gets the living shit beaten out of him, DeMornay loses her shit like it’s her hubby getting boot stomped. Just didn’t work for me.

-Good chopper stunt. There’s a cool scene in the 3rd Act where ‘Warden Ranken’ is going to meet his nemesis ‘Manny’ head-on, climbing down from a speeding helicopter to the train after their first guy ends up as sticky food for the Alaskan wilderness all over the track. The chopper ducks in and out of the mountains as the train races though a number of cliff-side tunnels, with a stuntman clinging to a ladder for dear life below.

-Bunk! We don’t get to see it?! Damn. *SPOILERS* After ‘Manny’ handcuffs a battered ‘Ranken’ to a piece of the destroyed locomotive, he stoically goes and disconnects the cars carrying ‘Buck’ and ‘Sara’. He then climbs on top of the out-of-control train engine and we see him valiantly fighting to stand against the wind as the train rushes him toward his Destiny. We’ve been told about the dead-end at the tail of this length of track and given that they had already given us a pretty cool crash scene earlier, perhaps there would be a tremendous crescendo to the story in the form of a seriously and spectacularly derailed and destroyed train. But nope…cut to credits on ‘Manny’ astride the racing train, arms outstretched like Jesus as it hurtles past in a wide panning shot.

And that’s that! I’ve now FINALLY seen another of those flicks from my youth that I was always curious about. Did it change my life? Not at all. Do I regret checking it out? Not at all. It’s a solid, sometimes thrilling movie that takes a very basic concept and executes it with guts, ingenuity, and vision. Some of the acting is a little much and the characters could’ve been fleshed out a bit better, in order to help with a sense of sympathy, which is tough when your main characters are unlikable pieces of shit like ‘Manny’ and ‘Buck’. But for a bleak action adventure flick that doesn’t pull many punches once it gets going, this is a solid offering from the 1980’s that I would actually venture was somewhat ahead of its time, stylistically.

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