Well, here it is: Cannon Films’ lone, extremely rare, legitimately good film. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adorer of the Cannon legacy and much of their output, but I know when to call a duck a duck. Original one-sheets for Death Wish 3 and Invasion U.S.A. will be thrown into the crematorium with me when I finally check out of this place, but I could never with a straight face say that either of them are “good.” Runaway Train is, even if “a Golan-Globus production” just happens to precede it. With a script originated/inspired by Seven Samurai’s Akira Kurosawa, two powerful performances from its leading men (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts), and a great deal of thematic weight attached to what otherwise would be viewed as a high-concept and broad action/thriller, Runaway Train strived to be more than just a piece of shallow entertainment, achieving nominations for three Academy Awards, as well as for the Palme d’Or for director Andrei Konchalovskiy.
To modern audiences, Runaway Train will feel like a case of been there/done that, even though it was one of the first to do what it did. (1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three takes that honor). Though 2010’s Unstoppable, starring Denzel and directed by Scott, claims to be based on a true story, the similarities between the two films can’t be denied — right down to the threat of the train derailing at a nearby chemical plant, threatening to spread toxic waste radiation across a circumference of alarming square mileage. Both even maintain the old and somewhat broken down man (Voight, Washington) caught up in the conflict with a young, somewhat cocky punk (Roberts, Pine) forced to work together, lest they become train goo. But where Unstoppable's leading men eventually become partners and equals, each walking away from the conflict with a mutual respect, that ain’t the case in Runaway Train. Because, again, it wants to be more than just a slice of escapism. It wants to be more than audiences wondering, “How will they stop that train??” (I’ll also throw out that Denzel and Scott additionally collaborated on the Taking of Pelham remake — these guys love trains!)
On the most basic thematic level, the runaway train on which Oscar “Manny” Manhem (Voight) and Buck McGeehy (Roberts) find themselves doubles as their fate. Former inmates of Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison, the freshly escaped cons with freedom in their eyes may have eluded their captors, but they have not eluded their fates. The choices they’ve made in life set their course into action — whether behind the walls of Stonehaven, or within the cars of their runaway train, their fates are inescapable, and it’s there they’ll have no choice but to confront the men they are and the lives they chose to lead.
Good performances in film aren’t rare; excellent performances are; but when an actor disappears, chameleon-like, into a role, all while leaving the audience unsettled and intimidated, that hardly ever happens. Look at Daniel Day-Lewis did it in Gangs of New York, Tom Hardy in Bronson, Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting (hey, trains!), but before all of them, Voight did it with Runaway Train. Oscar Manheim is a son of a bitch. He’s such a son of a bitch that Stonehaven’s warden ordered him permanently welded into his prison cell for three straight years. He’s such a son of a bitch that this same warden tries to off him via another prisoner saddled with a shiv. And Voight sinks his brown and metal teeth into the role with a dedication and fierceness seldom seen, nearly unrecognizable with his droopy eye and southern-fried fu manchu.
And then there’s Eric Roberts in an early effort which sees him in a rare role where he plays a good guy, albeit a prison escapee. He’s mouthy, energetic, and somewhat frantic — like a wild pup getting a taste of freedom after being kenneled for too long: manic and unrestrained, wanting to go everywhere and sniff everything. With only three months of time left yet to serve, his last-second decision to accompany Manny on his prison escape says a lot about the kind of person he is. He’s impulsive and brash, but also kind of a romantic, which to audiences translates as an innocent.
Unfortunately where Runaway Train loses momentum is with the inclusion of the character played by Rebecca De Mornay, who according to the credits plays “Sara,” even though I’d swear her name is never spoken aloud. It’s less that her performance comes off weak (even though it does), especially when sharing scenes with Voight and Roberts, and it’s not just that she’s saddled with the worst dialogue the film has to offer (“There’s a miracle coming, I feel it in my heart!”), but her character ultimately proves pretty useless. The name “Sara” notwithstanding, she’s actually an on-screen representation of the audience. Her job is to either provide exposition for whomever in the theater seats might be running a little behind, or to echo the thoughts that audience members are likely having. She’s there to whisper into their ears so they know how they should be feeling about the dynamic between the characters. And in a kind of ham-fisted way, her presence — that of “innocence” — is supposed to manufacture conflict for those personnel in the train station (Kenneth McMillan; The Thing’s T.K. Carter) with whether or not they should be trying very hard to make sure the train doesn’t derail. Had her character been wiped entirely from the story, leaving just the two cons behind on the train to face each other’s personalities, all while the train personnel grappled with whether or not the lives of two prisoners (i.e., bad guys) are worth it, both the duality of nature and the additional complication of the choice of crashing or saving the train would have felt more intimate and suspenseful: let the men die and avoid catastrophe, or take the risk and save their lives, even if they are “bad” men.
That aside, Runaway Train is still an excellent ride, anchored by excellent performances, wonderfully hectic and documentary-like cinematography by Alan Hume, and, somehow, direction by Konchalovsky that comes off both assured and chaotic. John P. Ryan, who played an array of bastards both villainous and heroic during his period as a stable actor for Cannon Films, turns in a sinister supporting performance as Warden Ranken, offering an additional threat on top of the one the cons are trapped within, and which is hurtling 90 miles an hour toward doom.
Cannon Films may not have made many “good” films during their tenure, but they’ve made at least one that was certainly excellent. For all the Wildey Magnum bullets that Paul Kersey fires into punks, or rocket launchers that Matt Hunter aims at Russian commie terrorists, none of them pack the punch of Voight’s performance, Konchalovsky’s direction, or an out-of-control Runaway Train.