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 poulation. Hailed as a prophet by fellow inmates, Manny is feared and despised by the no nonesense 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 long time 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 budger 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 from 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:


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