Saturday, 11 November 2017

Runaway Train (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1985)

Manny (Jon Voight) is a popular inmate at Alaska's Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. His popularity and repeated escape attempts have made him an enemy in Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who tries to have him killed. After he survives a stabbing, Manny and fellow inmate Buck (Eric Roberts) make another escape attempt.

They manage to escape the prison and find their way onto a train. Freedom is within their grasp.

However, little do they know that the train they're on has no driver and no brakes. As it speeds up,   the inmates and locomotive engineer Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) have to find a way to get to the front of the train and slow it down.

This movie holds the dubious distinction of being the best movie Golan-Globus ever made. Israeli movie producers Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus had come to the United States in the late seventies intent on cracking Hollywood.

After buying the small company Cannon, they produced a series of genre pictures geared toward the American market: amongst their output were films starring Chucks Bronson (the Death Wish sequels) and Norris (Missing in Action; Invasion USA and The Delta Force), as well as ninja movies, the He-Man movie Masters of the Universe and the space vampire epic Lifeforce. While they could boast some strong casts and decent budgets, Cannon's movies were renowned for their emphasis on cheap exploitable elements (action, sex and violence) over things like comprehensible narratives and character development. Golan in particular was infamous for cutting budgets (read up on what they did to Superman IV), tossing in bizarre story beats (Ninja III) and editing action movies to emphasis the action over the story (Invasion USA, Cobra and almost every other movie they made).

The fact that this company made Runaway Train - and that it turned out the way it did is almost unbelievable.
Based on a script by Akira Kurosawa and directed by respected Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (co-writer of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev), Runaway Train is an excellent action drama that also acts as a meditation on our understanding of freedom and control. Our protagonist, veteran convict Manny yearns for freedom and prides himself on his ability to survive and overcome any obstacle that he has to face. His foe is the prison warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who is equally determined to impose his will upon all the inmates under his control. He sees Manny as a test for his ability to control the prison.

While on the surface the movie repeats the 'one man bucks the system' theme of a lot of eighties action films, Runaway Train is more of a critique of the machismo behind these characters - it runs through the movie, from the way prisoners and guards bond over a shared love of magazine centrefolds; the misogynistic insults male characters throw at each other; and the casual abuse that Manny and fellow escapee Buck (Eric Roberts) subject train employee Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) to.

Because of the nature of their predicament, Manny is forced to recognise the limitations of his loner ethos. He may be a badass, but because of his posturing he has injured himself too badly to proceed alone. When he eggs Buck on to complete the mission (to the extent of refusing to let him back inside the train when he is stranded outside), Manny is forced to confront the pointlessness of his own philosophy - he is just as abhorrent as the man (Ranken) trying to take him back to prison.
Even the film's ending reinforces the movie's critique: As the train races toward a dead end, Manny chains Ranken to the engine and decouples it from the rest of the cars, saving Buck and Sara. 

At the end, he gets his freedom, but at what price?

Manny and Ranken are locked in a battle of wills that can only end with their deaths. Like the train they are trapped on, these men are headed towards their own destruction. Manny at least possesses the awareness to bring their conflict to an end.

As far as performances go, this is Voight's show. Violent, selfish and cunning, he is totally believable as a veteran convict. After his work in the seventies, Runaway Train was one of the few times in his career where he found a role showed off his chops.

Roberts was nominated for an Oscar for his role but he comes off as histrionic and self-conscious next to Voight's vibrant naturalistic performance. De Mornay is just flat; she is good at self-containment and emotional resonance (Risky Business; The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), but this role requires the opposite. Sara is meant to be an average joe in an unbelievable situation, but De Mornay never feels genuinely agitated.

Ranken (John P. Ryan)
The one performance that matches Voight's is John P. Ryan as Ranken - he brings an arrogant swagger to the warden that makes him easy to hate. His smooth demeanour is a great misdirect - when disrespected his response is a violent outburst, an emotional shift that is all the more disconcerting for how quickly it takes for him to revert back to his smug facade. His maniacal pursuit of Manny is so believable he actually helps make the film's final narrative contrivance (Ranken's showdown with Manny in the locomotive) work.

While the picture never feels like a Cannon picture, neither does it feel particularly locked down to the eighties. Because of how utilitarian the setting is, there are few elements which feel too contemporary. There are no pastels or familiar hairstyles - all the characters look worn down, scarred and dirty. The train itself is a marvellous piece of production design. Its exterior charred and smashed after a collusion with another train, it resembles a scarred beast, rocketing loose on the tracks.

Alan Hume's photography is unfussy, reinforcing the downbeat tone with a muted colour palette that makes the film feel more like a documentary. Since this was the eighties, the score is based on synths, it is incredibly spare and alien - in fact, there is no score for the entire first act, until the introduction of the train. In look and feel, it feels out of time.

On its release in December 1985, Runaway Train was a critical success, with Voight and Roberts received Oscar nominations for their performances. It was Cannon's crowning achievement. A series of big budget flops and in-fighting between Golan and Globus would see the company collapse within five years of Runaway Train's release.

If you have a chance, check out Runaway Train. It has a few narrative contrivances, and some of the acting is rote, but these elements are relatively minor. As much of a high concept thriller as a character drama, Runaway Train is one of the most underrated films of the eighties, and the jewel in Cannon's crown. 

More than that, it is just great movie. Check it out.

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