I love that Runaway Train is a Cannon Films production, so it’s home among a group of films such as Death Wish 5, Superman IV and, like, the American Ninja series of movies.
What’s funny is that Runaway Train isn’t necessarily dissimilar from Cannon’s modus operandi, it’s just that it’s so much better at doing it than the usual film of its type. It’s not even structured differently than your average exploitation film, it’s simply told better than it has any right to be told.
Even though it’s based on an unused screenplay the man, the legend, Akira Kurosawa, imagine the plot of Runaway Train as anything other than a low budget 1980s action film with sleaze galore and produced by the studio that would proudly, and without irony, subtitle a sequel of an original work “Electric Boogaloo”:
Oscar (Jon Voight) is a convicted felon. The film begins with him in prison, and the prison scenes are shot like they’re not of this earth at all, but filmed through a lens in Hell. Fire rains down from above and the inmates are constantly on the verge of riot. The warden (John P. Ryan) wants Oscar to escape so that he can kill him.
Buck (Eric Roberts in a rare, excellent performance) is the man who does help Oscar escape, and then decides he wants to get the hell out of there, too. The two men hop aboard a train and ride off toward their freedom, as temporary as it may all be. Something goes wrong, though, and the conductor is dead, and the train’s brakes have burnt out. Oscar and Buck find themselves on a speeding locomotive with no way to stop it, with a cargo whose spillage may cause untold death and an ecological disaster.
If this plot sounds absolutely ri-goddamn-diculous, that’s okay. It totally is. But, a movie is never so much as what it’s about, but in how what it’s all about is told. The most serious-sounding of movies could be flatly directed and bland, the results a tedious slog. The most ridiculous-sounding story can be enlivened by top-notch direction, excellent stuntwork, great lead and supporting performances, and an actual vision grounding it and leading it toward a spectacular finish.
Runaway Train is one of the most unlikely places to look to find a great movie, but look no further: It’s fucking fantastic. Had it been produced by a more prestigious studio, it would still be remembered today. It’s strange that no one hardly ever talks about it despite the fact that it was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing) and is one of the earliest roles for both Danny Trejo and Tommy “Tiny” Lister.
Rebecca DeMornay’s role is a pretty thankless one. Many of the reviews I read cast her as being there more or less “just because.” She’s clearly a surrogate for the audience to observe Buck and Oscar who no longer know how to act like human beings. They’re animals who were trapped in prison, and now they’re trapped on a god forsaken deathtrap of a train, and given the chance to do something “decent” they don’t know what to do. For her own survival, at one point, she attempts to pit one against the other, but cooler heads end up prevailing.
Andrey Konchalovskiy directs the holy hell out of this movie. It’s a master class of confidence watching the movie play out. I wish, if anything, that the “control room” scenes had been shortened, because when the action is with our main characters, it’s absolutely relentless and bleak and proudly poetic. It’s almost a perfect movie, with the cutaways slowing things down a bit. Yes, they give us perspective on the scope of the action, but I feel like without those scenes Runaway Train would be, easily, one of the best films of all time, instead of “merely” an excellent one.
Eddie Bunker (maybe best known for his brief performance in Reservoir Dogs) contributed to the finished screenplay, and his contributions to the final, filmed result are pretty immense: He served time at San Quentin and recommended Danny Trejo for a small role. Danny Trejo has, since then, been in just about every movie you love from the 90s, plus many more. Eddie Bunker also included the ending title quote from Richard III, that serves as the entire thesis of the film, regarding the treatment of men in so-called rehabilitation and their inability to adjust, “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore I am no beast.”