Runaway Train

Welcome to Reel Action, a place I affectionately call the Golan-Globus Appreciation Society. We love Cannon Films here, and the Golan-Globus era that gave us Bloodsport, Over the Top, Missing in Action, Death Wish, and so many great action flicks of the ’70s and ’80s. But ain’t nobody gonna think of Cannon as a prestige company. That was simply not their bag, even though they definitely tried and had a few successes. But when we look back at their genre output, one film stands out above the rest as a legitimately great critical success: RUNAWAY TRAIN. All aboard!

If all you know of Cannon is some of their wilder genre output, Runaway Train is like a kick in the teeth straight from jump street, with the words “Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa” flashing across the screen.

Excuse me, what??? What in the Toshiro Mifuni is Kurosawa doing in a Cannon Films genre flick? It’s kind of a long story, and we’ll get back to it, but it involves another legendary director, Francis Ford Coppola.

The story is driven by hardened criminal and prison hero Oscar “Manny” Manheim, played by Jon Voight in a performance that would earn him an Academy Award nomination. Manny has just spent three years in solitary confinement, but after a judge orders his release, the sadistic warden Ranken takes a hit out on him. Manny’s already escaped the Alaskan prison twice before, but he decides to move up his third escape attempt in light of the assassination attempt. He gets an unwanted tag-a-long in smooth-talking prizefighter Buck McGeehy, with Eric Roberts also earning himself some Oscar love for his portrayal.  You can already see that, just based on the accolades showered on the leads, that Runaway Train is unlike almost anything Cannon ever did.

Busting out of the supermax prison was just part of the problem. The unlikely duo now find themselves facing the harsh, frigid Alaskan climate. Hitching a ride on a freight train, they find themselves trapped when the conductor has a heart attack and the locomotive speeds out of control. While the train company squabbles about what to do, Manny and Buck are mostly unaware about the true danger they’re in until they encounter Sara, a resourceful but terrified train employee played by Rebecca De Mornay in her first action role.

Runaway Train is a unique entry in the Cannon library. The story was originally co-written by the legendary Akira Kurosawa, who came up with the idea after reading a 1963 Life magazine article about a runaway train. After announcing plans to direct it in 1966, with a script adapted by The Hustler writer Sidney Carroll, the project never got off the ground despite repeated attempts. Years later, Francis Ford Coppola, yep the Godfather himself, recommended then little-known Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky to direct Kurosawa’s script. It was Konchalovsky who got Cannon involved, and the project sped forward.

So what you have in Runaway Train is a film that combines the existentialist sensibilities of Kurosawa, with a Russian director’s visual eye, and a script that bears the hallmarks of co-writer Edward Bunker. Bunker, a former convict who would go on to write numerous crime novels that would become major adaptations, such as Straight Time and Animal Factory, really poured his soul into the Manny character. You can sense Bunker pouring out his soul about what being a convict is really all about, with Manny giving an impassioned schooling to the naive, headstrong Buck. Perhaps none bitter than this one…

Voight has never been better. This was 1986 and he was pretty much coming to the tail end of his career getting roles as sweet as this one. Manny is not a good person, he makes that clear many times throughout the film, but he has moments of enlightenment and seems to take personal offense at some of Buck’s cruder aspects. If this movie had been made today, or any time in the last 20 years for that matter, Buck would have been a sympathetic figure, probably convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Runaway Train is brilliant in that it doesn’t soften these hardened criminals, it just adds dimensions to them that we don’t think about.

The same goes for Eric Roberts as Buck, the slow-witted one of the duo. He’s not a good guy, either, as his first encounter with Sara shows….

“Hey sweetheart, how would you like a really good fuck?”

…and seems to have no compunctions about killing, but he has a naivete that’s almost sweet. And later, he shows a certain amount of courage in risking his life for the others and standing up to the bullying Manny. But we can’t forget Rebecca DeMornay, either. There are only a couple of female roles in the film, and honestly, women are treated pretty poorly in it. But she makes the most out of it. Sara, covered in dirt and shabby clothes, is so far removed from the sex symbol DeMornay was opposite Tom Cruise in Risky Business, or years later in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.

The supporting cast are solid as well, with John P. Ryan absolutely derisible as Ranken, who stays hot on the escapees tails and even drops dudes down from helicopters to kill them. And I really liked Kyle T. Heffner as the arrogant Frank Barstow, whose equipment keeps failing to stop the train. If there’s one point Runaway Train makes it’s that bad people are everywhere, and they aren’t all convicts. Some are people who claim to be doing good, but they’re as prone to evil as anybody. The convicts are repeatedly referred to as “animals” and “beasts”, but ultimately they want the same things we all want: self respect and freedom.

Runaway Train would also be the acting debut of two Hollywood tough guys. Danny Trejo, who plays Buck’s opponent in the boxing ring, and Tom “Tiny” Lister best known as Zeus in Over the Top and Deebo in the Friday films. Trejo, who had been visiting a friend on set, was recognized by Bunker as a fellow San Quentin prison inmate, and got Trejo the job as Roberts’ boxing coach, and later a small role in the film. Lister plays a prison guard who is easily swayed by Buck’s smooth talk, allowing for the inmates to escape.

Beyond the great performances, this was also the highlight of Konchalovsky’s career behind the camera. Every dollar of Runaway Train’s $9M budget was put into the impressive practical effects using minatures, and killer stuntwork, including an awesome bridge sequence. Even Roger Ebert was impressed, saying in his 4-star, thumbs up review…

…Runaway Train is quite simply one of the best adventure movies I’ve ever seen. A combination of action and suspense and best, characters that never stop surprising me.

Konchalovsky wasn’t known for much besides international prestige dramas before this, but he showed to be very adaptable to genre fare. However, he never really made it in Hollywood. He went even bigger with 1989’s Tango & Cash, starring Reel Action favorites Sly Stallone and Kurt Russell, only to be fired three months in over creative disputes. He did manage to complete the awful 1989 fil, Homer & Eddie (this guy loves his teamups!), before largely fleeing Hollywood to work in his native Russia.

With kinetic, Oscar-nominated editing and a great score Runaway Train stands as one of the shining jewels of the Cannon library. Sadly, like so many other memorable Cannon projects, it was a dud at the box office. But Runaway Train has lived long as a masterful, tension-filled thrillride with impeccable lead performances. It may have stood apart from the typical genre film of the period, but in a way that’s what makes Runaway Train so special now. Because it has gone largely overlooked compared to other films in that era, Runaway Train is like this rare find just waiting to be discovered.

Runaway Train gets 8 out of 10 Stallones

Best Crash Scene:

Trivia: One of the four Alaska Railroad locomotives used in Runaway Train would later turn up in the Steven Seagal flick Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.

The film was shot with a bleak, washed-out color palette, and with cameras set up at unexpected positions to give it the look and feel of a documentary.

Runaway Train is the only movie to earn Eric Roberts an Oscar nomination.

Kurosawa originally wanted Lee Marvin and Henry Fonda to star.

Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.