Director: Andrei Konchalovsky / Screenplay: Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel & Edward Bunker (from screenplay by Akira Kurosawa) / Editing: Henry Richardson / DP: Alan Hume / Score: Trevor Jones
Cast: Jon Voight / Eric Roberts / Rebecca De Mornay / Kyle T. Heffner / John P. Ryan / T. K. Carter / Kenneth McMillan
Her Whistle Wide and Her Throttle Back…
I have mixed feelings about Runaway Train. For many it represents a cult classic but, thirty-five years after Andrei Konchalovsky directed its constituent parts as if assembling cinematic Lego, I’m less convinced.
Forget the puffery around ‘based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa’. If the Master DID have a hand in this, its schlocky nature suggests it was knocked-off during that indistinct blur between waking up and brushing one’s teeth. I’m joking of course, but not much.
Yes, I can see how he might’ve cooked-up the basic premise as a meditation on how Man’s true character always emerges in the bleakest of moments or something – I’m paraphrasing here – but the three other writers listed, simply riffed on from there, of that I’m certain.
Take the first act: a sagging half-hour, in a comically-drawn ‘Maximum Security’ prison, under the questionable stewardship of Warden Ranken (Ryan); a moustachioed sadist, who’s lax discipline extends to allowing prisoners access to the P.A. system and scattering the burning debris across the landings. It’s as if the prisoners have just seen Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (on a pirated VHS, naturally) and took it as newsreel.
If anyone’s breaking out, it’ll not be to gain their freedom, but to escape the squalor.
Lurking at the end of one of these hellish landings, is Manny (Voight); a self-confessed animal of a prisoner. Manny’s so dangerous in fact, that Ranken had him welded into his cell three years before. Now, a lily-hearted Judge has ordered that the beast be unleashed and Manny’s relishing the chance to needle Ranken all over again. Except, well, he’s not. Not really. For what Manny’s actually been doing, during those three long years, is learning the layout of the prison’s sewer pipes and acquiring certain tools.
How? Best not to ask too many questions; the writers certainly aren’t.
Anyway, Manny’s assisted by the bumpkinesque Buck, played by Eric Roberts as a prison boxing champion, blessed with a non-stop, potty-mouthed commentary on a world that shrugs right back. Buck – a ‘trusty’ – wheels Manny right out of the wing in a laundry cart and over to the laundry itself. It’s at this point, that Manny’s forced to take Buck along as a hyperactive partner, rather than take the time to shut him up. So, we get a strangely un-erotic scene of both men slathering themselves in grease, before applying the finishing touch: a cling-film body-wrap (no, really). Next step? Dropping themselves into the aforementioned sewer pipe that runs, untreated, out to the Great Beyond. The only hurdle? A full-height, impassable grating: but wouldn’t you know it? From his duffle bag, Manny pulls the very pressure-wrench needed to prise those bars apart. Given the jail’s isolated location in the wilds of Alaska, this might be the only example of said tool in a hundred-mile radius, yet here we are.
But, wait: there’s more. The pipe terminates with a ‘three hundred foot drop’ into a river. A freezing, Alaskan river, yet both men jump gaily from the (unsoiled) pipe, in a fall that would most likely kill them both outright, but from which they emerge relatively unscathed; must’ve been the cling-film, I’m guessing.
All this to set up a movie about a runway train? It achieves nothing other than to serve as padding. Characters aren’t advanced in any meaningful way, other than to reinforce just how annoying Eric Roberts is in the role. If I were Manny, I’d have either killed him myself, or vowed simply to go our separate ways, thus make it harder for the inevitable manhunt to-follow.
Ah, yes. The Manhunt… We’ll get to that. First, there’s the little matter of the train itself.
Our intrepid duo find themselves at a railway goods yard. Locomotives are being moved about and train-sets, assembled. Having seen – and liked – a particular train (Manny hissing ‘That one! I want it!’) they jump aboard the last of a four-engine set. The old driver up-front, unaware of his new stowaways, gets it going and promptly keels over with a heart attack: but not before he does a few, key things. First, he applies the brakes (which will handily burn-out a few miles up the track). Second, he leaves the throttle open and Third? He opens the cab door and falls to his ignominious death at trackside… Just. Wow.
As the newly liberated Runaway’ gathers pace, the film divides into three strands, First, is obviously the interior of the last cab, with a focus on how Manny & Buck behave, once Rebecca De Mornay’s Sara wakes-up from her dozing and makes her way to the rear. Oh, don’t fear for her: Sara began by sleeping-on-the-job and it’s a motivation she carries through the rest of the movie. She’ll be fine.
Second, is the railway’s control room and how it’s given over to Kyle Heffner’s Frank: a two-dimensional ‘high tech wizard’ and the architect of the ‘$4.5 million’ system now running the network (that kind of money could buy a wall-map studded with a lot of randomly blinking lights back in the day). Watching Frank work his giant videogame, is probably no accident, and neither is the feed showing on the office TV, of a space shuttle landing. It’s alluding to our Brave New World, see? This location and – more importantly, the people in it – was for me, the weakest section of the film. Everything offended, from the appalling, first-draft dialogue, the blatant misogyny shown to co-workers and a selection of gross stereotypes with whom we’re supposed to relate. Things don’t improve when Eddie (McMillan) the apparent owner of the network turns-up to, err, ‘manage’.
At first, Eddie berates Frank over the fact that his system can’t override the train, to which Frank replies that it was only intended as an ‘efficient scheduling tool’. So why, if that’s true, is the guy who commissioned & paid for it, expecting it to do more? If we put an idiotic premise aside, I think it comes from a misplaced faith in ‘technology’ as a panacea.
Frank: ‘I still don’t understand. How did this happen? Why couldn’t we stop it? All this junk. All this high technology?’
Eddie: ‘Some things can’t be explained.’
Too, true Eddie. Too true: especially for this movie. What business has Frank to sound so maudlin? He designed the thing, didn’t he? He, more than anyone present, should be aware of its limitations. He should be the one saying ‘Some things can’t be explained’…
Or am I missing something?
The third plank, shoring-up this wheeled farrago, is Ranken’s pursuit of his quarry by helicopter. It seems that Buck left some incriminating clothing back at the depot and our resourceful Warden, has put two-and-two together.
The movie now skips back-and-forth between all three strands. The control room’s largely reduced to commentary about the map’s flashing lights, with salty dialogue adding lustre to whatever hazard the Runaway’ will face next… While Frank wrestles heroically with his array of VGA monitors, a Greek chorus gathers behind a railing, comprised of bemused engine drivers in oil-stained coveralls, pink, fluffy secretaries and various white-shirts with pens-in-breast-pockets; all are exchanging anxious glances and comparing the furrowed brows whilst staying mute. Had this setup been in a Zucker brothers’ movie, I’d have expected them to break into a dance number at any second.
Meanwhile, out in the snowy wilderness, the train seems possessed by the same spirit as Manny. Nothing is gonna stop these two great lumbering beasts, in their shared quest to be free at any cost. After ploughing through the tail-end caboose of a slower moving train without pause (though managing to stay on-track), our wheeled bruiser makes short work of a few snow-drifts. Hurtles over a rickety trestle bridge in-excess of the speed limit. Bursts-through timber barriers at both ends of a disused tunnel, as if the spars were matchwood. With the jagged remains of the caboose wedged into the engine’s snout, the train looks hungry for destructive chaos: just like Manny.
Eventually, having cut power to all but the two lead trains, the villains are powerless to cut-loose the one out-front, on account of its inaccessible cab (different design lacking a handy catwalk in case you wondered). So, they turn to bickering, with the result that Buck’s bravado succumbs to Manny’s goading and he climbs out to attempt a leap forward to the rogue engine. And fails. Once back in the cab, a resumption of bickering turns quickly to fighting; Manny is frustrated with the younger man’s ‘lack of character’ or something. But they stop once the futility becomes apparent: why fight what you cannot change?
This is the cue for the movie’s keynote sequence: an impassioned monologue from Manny (penned by Voight himself). In an admittedly powerful delivery, he extols the virtues in Buck holding-down ‘a little job’; one in which, if he bottles-up all his rage & frustration at being humiliated, he might end up ‘President of Chase Manhattan bank’ some day. Of course, it’s a pipe-dream as much for the man saying it, as for the man to whom its addressed. That’s obvious, but Manny is further down the road than Buck and, maybe, he sees something of his younger self in the lovable goon and figures he might as well offer one hell of a high bar for him to clear. That Buck dismisses his vision out of hand, stating a preference for jail as a more attractive alternative, is the film at its most poignant. After all, the kid’s in good shape and a talented boxer. He could make something of himself, but he’s already as much a product of the system as Manny.
Which makes me think about the scene’s wider intention. In the mid-Eighties, America’s economy was beginning to splinter, thanks to its vulnerability to cheaper (and better) foreign imports and a weakness when it came to the emerging Information Age. Vast swathes of the population would eventually be left behind, as their well-paid jobs were replaced with less valued alternatives. One might read this speech – indeed the whole film – as a commentary on how we’re all prisoners of one kind or another. How Ranken is as much a victim of the system he runs, as those in its ‘care’. How the railway office has set itself apart as some remote fiefdom. But, like the Wizard in Oz, when the curtain is pulled back, there’s nothing to see. Frank and his two-dimensional buddies are as locked-in as everyone else: no wonder the chorus are bleating: they’ve just seen how flimsy things really are at the top.
Then again, as Director Konchalovsky himself has stated, ‘it might just be a movie about a runaway train’…
Heedless of subtext then, this turns out to be Manny’s parting speech and before anyone can stop him, he’s made the jump, almost to prove a point. He’s free now, after all. No-one’s going to catch him. He’s come too far and not even sloppy continuity with (another) gratuitous scene-of-peril can stop him.
Not even Ranken, who’s now dropped onto the train, thanks to an indulgent helicopter pilot (that’s some committed Warden) to confront Manny mano a mano. They fight, obviously, but with a surprising outcome: Manny cuffs him to a stanchion beyond the reach of the ‘Emergency stop button’. He then separates the lead train. With power cut to his own, now-slowing engine, all Buck can do is stare, bereft, as his hero and the rogue loco hurtle together, into the blizzard and certain oblivion. We know it’s coming, not only because Manny leans into the wind and bares his gold tooth at the elements raging around him, but because Eddie’s been banging-on about it for some minutes now, back at HQ. It’s why the train was moved onto a dead-ended siding, after all.
Things to like? Stunt-work is very impressive; these guys really are clambering over a moving goods train in a blizzard. Photography by Alan Hume also manages to capture something of the chill, but it staggers me, that both male leads were Oscar-nominated for what’s nothing more than a schlocky action-movie, littered with self-conscious behavioural issues. Was the class of ‘85 really that bad?
Which brings me to the final clincher: wouldn’t the trains have each been fitted with a ‘Dead Man’s Switch’? The moment that the driver fell off the wagon (ahem),
would should have been game over!
If I don’t get my convicts back, the prison‘ll be out of control. You know what a riot, in a Maximum Security prison looks like? Your brains are too small to imagine it!