Blu-ray Review: Runaway Train

By the mid 1980s Cannon had become a byword for trashy low to medium budget action films. Its fortunes revolved around several franchises including American Ninja, Death Wish, and Delta Force. The success of these films enabled Canon’s producers to persuade financiers to reinvest their profits with the promise of even greater rewards once its next slate of pictures reached the movie theatres. Before it all came tumbling down, Cannon would release anything between thirty and forty-three films a year. Despite being remembered for such cinematic disasters as Death Wish 3 and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, this American based studio’s output was far more diverse. It introduced a number of foreign language titles into the U.S cult movie market and produced some high-quality films including Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello, and Norman Mailler’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

Runaway Train is a film that over the years has paradoxically simultaneously transcended and been tainted by Cannon’s legacy. The film premiered at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival but its general release was marred by the marketing department’s inability to see that this movie needed to be screened in specialist cinemas. Although dogged by a flawed distribution strategy the film went on to be nominated in three categories at the Academy Awards ( Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing) and a further three at the Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor).

In the decades since it’s the theatrical release new generations of viewers have discovered this movie either by TV screenings, or VHS and DVD releases and it has accrued the status of a stone-cold cult classic. Jon Voight’s return to the small screen in Ray Donovan has had the unexpected side effect of the film once again coming under critical scrutiny. Several interviews and career retrospectives have referred to Runaway Train in highly complimentary terms so the worldwide Blu-ray premiere of a restored version could not have been more perfectly timed.

Oscar “Manny” Manheim (Jon Voight) is a hard-boiled bank robber who has spent three years in a welded cell. A court ruling orders that he be released from solitary confinement and rehoused within the general prison population. Hailed as a prophet by fellow inmates, Manny is feared and despised by the no-nonsense tough as old boots warden (John P Ryan). From the moment his isolation ends Manny has one thing on his mind, escape. Biding his time he waits for the right moment to abscond. With simple minded Buck (Eric Roberts) in tow, Manny breaks out of Stonehaven and treks across the inhospitable Alaskan terrain searching for transport. Chancing upon a railway yard Manny chooses a goods train to take the pair as far away from Stonehave Prison as possible. When the driver suffers a fatal heart attack Manny and Buck are trapped on a train with no brakes heading out of control at ever-increasing speed towards their doom.

Inspired by a magazine article about a runaway train in Rochester NY Akira Kurosawa drafted a script under the working title Boso kikansha intending for it to be his first English language film. Scheduling conflicts and miscommunication prevented Kurosawa from directing this movie and the script would pass through various hands over the next decade before finding a home at Cannon. Revisions were commissioned from Serbian born Djordje Milicevic (Escape to Victory) and American playwright Paul Zindel before the screenplay  was handed to Eddie Bunker for retooling

Today, Eddie Bunker is probably best known for playing Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs but before entering the film industry he spent over forty years as a career criminal and at one time was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Whilst in prison he discovered a love of literature and a talent for writing, his prose received continual encouragement from some of America’s most notorious criminals including Caryl Chessman. A terse and uncompromising writer, Bunker’s work drew from his experiences of correctional institutions and asked existential questions about what made an individual turn to criminality. Upon release from prison, he published the hard-hitting  novel No Beast No Fierce which was adapted for cinema as the Dustin Hoffman starring Straight Time. Two further novels would follow and after sales of his third, Little Boy Blue, didn’t meet publisher expectations Bunker started working in Hollywood as a script doctor.

During his UK public appearances in the 1990s Bunker would frequently talk at length about Runaway Train asserting his claim to be the author of the final draft. Aside from a monologue improvised by Voight, it’s inconceivable that anybody other than Bunker could have so accurately conveyed the criminal experience. Only a man who had spent more than half his life inside a prison cell would truly know just how potent dreams of escape are and how frequently convicts make plans to break out. In addition to script duties Bunker has a small but substantial role in as a mentor to Manny.

Whilst mulling over whether to accept the lead role Voight agreed to sign on the dotted line on the understanding that Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (Siberiade) was definitely committed to directing the project. A longtime fan of Konchalovsky’s work, Voight’s production company sponsored his initial green card.

Given artistic freedom so long as he remained on schedule and didn’t go over budget Konchalovsky, in tandem with cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, For Your Eyes Only) infused the classic disaster movie template with a visual sensibility inspired by the American New Wave. The pictorial spectacle was accompanied by a focus on psychological realism.

Long rumoured to have been a troubled shoot, former convict turned drugs counselor Danny Trejo visited the set to speak to one of his clients and was spotted by Eddie Bunker who knew him from prison. Bunker had seen Trejo fight several times in tournaments over the years and persuaded the director and producers to hire him to train Eric Roberts for a boxing sequence. After three weeks honing Roberts into shape Trejo was rewarded with his first screen appearance.

The testosterone is balanced out by a magnetic performance from Rebecca De Mornay. Then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Her character is the fulcrum that sets Manny and Buck free from their self-imposed intellectual and emotional prisons.

 A philosophically clever film that belies its origins as a Cannon production and throws an almighty curve ball at genre expectations. The stunt work is even more thrill making in an era when health and safety executives force producers to use CGI alternatives. Add to that some of the finest and most honest screen performances to come from Voight and Roberts and suddenly Runway Train becomes a Blu-ray that can sit very comfortably in either Action or Screen Classic sections of your local entertainment emporium.

 The disc is rounded out by an impressive set of special features. Good humoured interviews with Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Andrei Konchalovsky, and Kyle T. Heffner tells us what the film meant to them as individuals and in terms of their careers. Alternative casting suggestions are discussed (Henry Fonda and Peter Falk), the secrets behind some of the incredible stunts are revealed, and the filmmakers talk about their relationship with the infamous producers.

Runaway Train is available to order from Amazon.


DVD Review: Unit One – Series 1 and 2

With the recent DVD release of Exit we were treated to a crucial moment in Mads Mikkelsen’s screen career, one that had previously been unavailable in the UK. On the cusp of international stardom and yet blissfully unaware that he was about to embark on a journey that would lead to him one day playing the most infamous serial killing cannibal in modern fiction.

For a long time, it seemed as though several essential pre Exit moments in Mikkeslen’s career would always remain unobtainable to us. Tantalising hints of complex characters in intense productions were dotted around various web pages enticing and frustrating fans with the possibility of mesmerizing portrayals being forevermore beyond our reach. Resigned to the prospect of never being able to purchase subtitled DVDs of Exit and Unit One and see first hand if the promise of greatness was always there, fans were taken by surprise when Arrow Films rectified that situation and started issuing those very same titles. For the first time, fans can begin building a more complete overview of Mikkelsen’s early career with the added bonus of sampling some excellent examples of Scandinavian film and TV.


As the latest title to be released under the Nordic Noir banner, Unit One may quite possibly be one of the most historically significant titles to be issued by Arrow Films’ Scandinavian imprint. Fast moving and gritty, Unit One is the show that changed the face of Danish television. Rescuing the crime genre from decades of male dominance, the series placed a strong and dynamic female character at the centre of the action and in doing so opened a door which would enable Sarah Lund and Saga Noren to follow through in later years.

Premièring in 2000, Unit One is a series about a high profile mobile police team that travels the width and breadth of Denmark in order to investigate murders, incidents of serial rape, arson, extortion, and any other forms of criminality which may be too specialized for the local law enforcement agency to deal with. Based on real-life crimes, the show proudly wears its authenticity on its sleeve, taking great care to let the viewers know what sentence was metered out to the miscreants.


Produced in response to American crime series which were very popular with Danish audiences, Unit One was commissioned by future home of The Killing and Borgen, DR1, as a part of a policy to increase the share of home grown content broadcast by the station. From its inception, the producers of Unit One were determined to craft a show that was comparable to anything being made across the Atlantic. That the series was awarded an International Emmy Award in 2002 is proof that the producers succeeded in their aims.

Incredibly popular in Denmark, Unit One ran for four seasons and the shutters finally came down on the mobile police unit because of a desire to go out on top and leave the audience hungry for more. More than a decade on from the final episode the lessons learned whilst making this series are still being employed in day-to-day Danish TV drama production.


Showrunner, Peter Thorsboe’s commitment to and excitement for the subject matter was such that Unit One became the first part in a thematic trilogy (Unit OneThe EagleThe Protectors) that explored criminality and the emotional and social sacrifices made by police officers. With this first installment Thorsboe made a creative decision not to sensationalise the heinous criminal acts the show would deal with each week and by populating the series with believable and sympathetically written detectives he weighted the show with an emotional anchor that prevented any melodramatic heightening of tone.

The inclusion of a female senior female detective may seem to fans of Nordic Noir to be an essential ingredient but for Danish audiences in 2000 this was revolutionary television. Ingrid Dahl, played by Charlotte Fich, is a prototype for the more socially dysfunctional female leads that feature in current Danish TV crime shows. Identification figure and outsider, it is through her eyes we become acquainted with Unit One’s modus operandi and the fellow team members.


Having an unshakable belief in the rule of law and due process Dahl is plunged into a world outside of her comfort zone when she is made acting commander of the unit. Her primary objective is to apprehend her predecessor’s killer and build a watertight case which will withstand the scrutiny of the state prosecutor and defence lawyer.

The first season is essentially Dahl’s story despite Unit One being billed an ensemble show. With the greatest amount of screen time and most significant emotional character arc Dahl is the motor behind the team’s narrative actions . An emotionally strong woman with the ability to be decisive and a strong sense of empathy, Dahl stands in stark contrast to the Nordic Noir model of femininity with which we are more familiar. Lacking the social awkwardness of Saga Noren or the skewed private life of Sarah Lund, Dahl is successful at work and has a loving and sympathetic family which accepts that sometimes holidays might have to be postponed or canceled because of police business.


Previously, Dhal has acted within the letter of the law and hasn’t tolerated any actions by her colleagues in which rules were broken or bent to secure a conviction but upon joining Unit One she has to come to terms with a mode of policing that operates with a very different methodology. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to enter a property without a warrant and Dahl soon learns when to turn a blind eye or fake a deaf ear.The extent to which the presence of femininity within a traditionally masculine may transform policing is a subplot throughout the first series. Dahl’s promotion is resented by some of her male colleagues despite them benefiting from it due to a tokenistic financial initiative which sees the team being awarded better facilities and pay rises as part of an programme aimed at increasing the presence of woman within senior roles. Dahl faces accusations of political correctness head on and spends the first series proving to her colleagues and a skeptical public that she is able do the job better than any comparable male candidate.

Unit One’s first series was rewarded with critical praise and impressive viewing figures that annihilated the rival network’s competition. DR1 instantly realised it had a hit on its hands and seizing the momentum commissioned a second season. Allocating an increased budget and greater technical resources DR1 was committed to producing a series which built upon lessons learnt during the first series, ensuring that the sophomore season took the show to even greater heights.


In series two the central premise would remain unchanged but with a years experience under its belt the production team had an acute awareness of what changes were needed in order to amplify the distinct voice. The outmoded cinematographic techniques employed in the first few episodes were discarded and replaced by a visual palette that would, with minor modifications, still be in use in 2013.

Armed with a sharper and faster batch of scripts Unit One‘s second season rewarded viewers with pay-offs on plot points hinted at in earlier episodes and brought the supporting cast to the fore.

An unspecified amount of time has passed since the end of the first series,. Dahl has come to terms with a personal tragedy and the team has laid the ghost of the previous supervising officer to rest. Now viewed as a friend, as well as a colleague, she is able to counsel team members in moments of emotional crisis knowing that they now regard her as an equal.


The series’ balance becomes far more equally distributed as subsidiary members of the team are given an increased amount of screen time. Individual emotional storylines crash into criminal investigations and then rebound back. Being on call 24/7 means that officers have long ago given up any pretence of being able to manage a harmonious private life. Never able to switch off from work means that the team feels more alive when in the field and sometimes may need a particularly gruesome case to escape from domestic turmoil.

From guest artiste to series regular Unit One is populated by actors at the top of their game shining in a groundbreaking series. Because of his current high profile attention may initially focuses on Mads Mikkelson to see if the greatness was there at such an early point in his career, yes it was, but focusing on a single actor is a disservice to a superb cast, many of whom would become familiar faces on Danish screens in subsequent years.

Unit One – Series 1 and 2 can be ordered from Amazon:

Series 3 will be released in 2014 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon:


DVD Review: Exit


As the latest actor to play Thomas Harris’ notorious fictional cannibalistic psychiatrist, Mads Mikkelsen is currently in the midst of being elevated from cult film and TV icon to mainstream stardom. Mikkelsen is that rare breed of performer, equally at home being either a leading man or a character actor. Never failing to deliver an intriguing screen performance, Mikkelsen is an actor ever cautious Hollywood studios can cast secure in the knowledge that not only will he deliver the goods but that his screen persona has a strong enough recognition factor to attract an audience. Such is the confidence in his latest project, Hannibal, that several cable networks were reportedly willing to step into the breach and buy the series in the event that NBC declined to order a second season. Capitalising on his new found fame within the American market, Mikkelsen is currently shooting a Western, The Salvation, and recently leant his vocal talents to the forthcoming Kung Fu Panda 3.

Within the English speaking world, Mads Mikkelsen first came to prominence playing the villain in the 2006 James Bond reboot Casino Royale. Cast as a financier of international terrorist activity, Mikkelson’s underplaying of the part conveyed a sense of vulnerability and cold steel which made the character all too believable. Eschewing arch theatrics that came to be part and parcel of a tired franchise, Mikkelson made the viewer accept the possibility that figures like Le Chiffre might be exploiting our economic system to fund the activity of groups that are determined to destroy our political, social and cultural institutions. Mikkelson joined the pantheon of Bond villains having recently completed principal photography on a Swedish action thriller, Exit, which also explored the corrosive impact of high-risk speculative forms of capitalism.


After spending several years working for an IT investment company Jesper Kärrbrink and Håkan Ramsin decided to write a pot boiling novel about an innocent man on the run after being accused of murder. Pooling their knowledge of the industry combined with a mutual love for American film and TV thrillers, most notably The Fugitive, they produced a page-turning thriller that came to the attention of Swedish writer and director Peter Lindmark. Enthralled by the novel’s overall story structure Lindmark began crafting an adaptation which had greater layers of moral ambiguity.

Produced several years before the global financial crisis erupted, Exit is a remarkable thriller. Viscerally exciting and socially conscious, the film shines a light onto an unethical and destructive form of financial services. Shot through with an acute genre awareness, Exit pays homage to films like The Fugitive but transcends them thanks to a degree of intelligence in the scripting process that transforms what could all too easily have been an innocent man on the run storyline into a murkier affair in which inevitability is tossed out of the window. Motives and personal histories may not be quite what they seem at first. From certainty to uncertainty, Lindmark takes us on a voyage awash with ever increasing incertitude and feverish jeopardy.


Mikkelson plays Thomas Skepphult, a highly successful venture capitalist who is at the top of his game. A partner in a flourishing firm, he knows which rules to break or bend. Cautious with the reputation of his firm, Nova Investments, he engages in the long game. Information is essential to Thomas, he needs to know all the variables before even reaching negotiations.

Unable to tolerate the reckless activity of partner Morgan Nordenstråle (Samuel Fröler) Thomas and Nova Investment’s other principal shareholder Wilhelm Rahmberg (Börje Ahlstedt) have no option but to fire the miscreant. Morgan’s father was an architect in the success of Nova Investment so being told that he very nearly destroyed the company is a bitter blow. With the walls of his world tumbling down Morgan exits the room on the pretext of collecting a photograph of his family. Whilst in his private office Morgan takes aim with a shotgun and blows his brans out. Selling the tragedy to the viewers Lindmark shows us a headless corpse dripping blood all over a picture of a family…


Seven years later and Thomas Skepphult is king of his domain. Married with a daughter, an expensive waterfront property, boat, and, ironically, a financially secure future courtesy of the very deal which led to the dismissal of Morgan Nordenstråle. Having seen the shares in the investment rise seven hundred percent Thomas believes that market conditions are ripe for selling to a rival group but first he needs approval from minority shareholders. The trade is openly challenged in a public meeting on the basis of the purchaser’s ethical practices. To avoid the deal falling through Thomas engages in a bit of horse trading with smooth operator Gabriel Mörk (Johan Rabaeus). In the seven years since Morgan’s suicide Thomas has learnt a trick or three about how to play his opponents in a business deal so withdrawing from a planned oil investment to reduce Mörk’s tax liability is a price worth paying if it means that Nova Investment can offload its shares in Cataegis and reap a huge profit.

Having tamed the metaphorical beast, Thomas prepares to slay demon. Selling the shares should be a swift and clean transaction. One that will transform Nova Investment’s fortunes. However, representatives from the Belarus based company supposed to be purchasing this stock have other ideas. Information has come to light surrounding the founder and owner of Cataegis that has made Extreme Capital Group unwilling to accept the terms on the table.


Denied a final hurrah. Wilheim announces his decision to retire and gives Thomas the keys to the kingdom. Dreams of living in sunnier climes with his wife Louise (Kristina Törnqvist) are destined never to be fulfilled for that very same night Wilheim is murdered.

Arrested on suspicion of murder, Thomas is plunged into a world in which a player on the other side is pulling all the strings. Someone that knows him intimately and is able to anticipate his every move has laid a series of traps designed to destroy his life. With his family in mortal danger, Thomas must escape from police custody to protect them, prove his innocence, and confront the killer.

Detective Malm (Ia Langhammer) thinks that Wilheim’s murder is a simple open and shut case. Steadfast in her conviction that she has proved the means, method, and motive Malm’s primary quest is to recapture Thomas and ensure he stands trial. Reprising a trope from TV and film versions of The Fugitive, the boundaries of her investigation become ever more liquid the longer Thomas is at large. What began as a homicide case becomes a journey into a dark world in which nothing is what it seems at first glance.


With a generic template in place, Lindmark embraces the forms and conventions and transforms them into something quite extraordinary. Playing with the script’s theme of corruption and contamination he gets starts overturning expectations and subverting tropes. The unflappable hero who must wage war with an unseen foe is replaced with a more ambiguous figure. His true nature is one of the many mysteries blended into a script that reveals the beauty of its construction on second viewing. Further proof of a creative team operating in pursuit of a shared vision is that the enigmas running throughout the film are cunningly communicated by the cinematographer.

Crammed with conundrums, Exit’s sharp screenplay tosses the viewer into a sea of suspicion and then catapults a further barrage of brain twisters. If Thomas’ wife (Kirsty Torhaug) knows so little about his life before they met and his current business dealings how certain are we that he’s not reaping the rewards of his past behaviour?

Far more than just a European clone of The Fugitive, Exit is a white knuckle descent into a debased and perverted business environment. Even white knight Fabian von Klerking, played by True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgård, moral compass is eroded when he’s forced to deal with the very man who broke his father. By resisting temptation and remaining true to his beliefs Fabian sets off on a path that will lead to him being infected with the stench of malfeasance.

When casting Mikkelson to play Le Chiffre in Casino Royale the producers must have had access to an early cut of Exit, two sequences are lifted wholesale and recreated within the Bond movie.

Bewitching, sensational, and blood-tingling, Exit is an ingenious suspense-filled movie overflowing with tension.

Exit is available to order from Amazon.