Monday, May 2, 2016

Retro Review: RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985)

(US - 1985)

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Written by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker. Cast: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, Kenneth McMillan, Kyle T. Heffner, John P. Ryan, T.K. Carter, Stacey Pickren, Walter Wyatt, Edward Bunker, Reid Cruickshanks, John Bloom, Hank Worden, Danny Trejo, Tommy "Tiny" Lister, William Tregoe. (R, 111 mins)

Though they were primarily known for Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and ninja movies, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had serious aspirations as Cannon hit its stride in the mid '80s. Wanting artistic credibility, they began courting important, influential filmmakers like John Cassavetes (LOVE STREAMS), Robert Altman (FOOL FOR LOVE), Liliana Cavani (THE BERLIN AFFAIR), Lina Wertmuller (CAMORRA), Franco Zeffirelli (OTELLO), Roman Polanski (PIRATES), Jean-Luc Godard (KING LEAR), Barbet Schroeder (BARFLY), and Dusan Makavejev (MANIFESTO), among others. Released in late 1985 and expanding wide in early 1986, RUNAWAY TRAIN was the closest Golan and Globus came to working with legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose films like SEVEN SAMURAI and YOJIMBO are among the most iconic in all of cinema. Based on a never-filmed script that Kurosawa wrote and intended to shoot in 1966 following the release of RED BEARD, RUNAWAY TRAIN was re-written by the unlikely trio of Djordje Milicevic (VICTORY), YA novelist Paul Zindel (The Pigman), and crime writer and ex-con Edward Bunker, who scripted STRAIGHT TIME and would go on to play Mr. Blue in RESERVOIR DOGS. It was the second of four Cannon productions directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian filmmaker who more or less became Cannon's go-to, in-house art-house guy with 1984's MARIA'S LOVERS, 1986's DUET FOR ONE, and 1987's SHY PEOPLE. Konchalovsky broke away from Cannon for the 1989 Whoopi Goldberg/James Belushi bomb HOMER AND EDDIE and directed most of Warner Bros' mega-budget TANGO & CASH before he was fired and replaced by an uncredited Albert Magnoli (PURPLE RAIN).

Perhaps more than any other Cannon production, RUNAWAY TRAIN is representative of Golan and Globus straddling the line between mainstream and highbrow, with one foot in the grindhouse and the other in the art-house. At its core, it's a no-bullshit, edge-of-your-seat action movie with a very simple premise--right there in the title-- straight out of a B movie. At a maximum security prison in Alaska, lifer Manny Manheim (Jon Voight) is considered such a danger and an escape risk that he's spent the last three years in solitary with the door welded shut. When a court order forces vindictive, borderline psychotic warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) to let Manny back into general population, Ranken has another inmate attack Manny, which backfires and starts a prison riot. With none-too-bright and eager-to-please youngster Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) in tow, Manny manages to escape and the pair sprint miles through the snowy wilderness and hop aboard a four-car train. "Why this one?" Buck asks. "Because I want it," Manny replies, as if fate is drawing him to it.

As the train departs the railyard and Manny and Buck hide in the fourth car, the conductor suffers a fatal heart attack, falling off the train and leaving it in a way that overrides the automatic stop. The train accelerates at such a rate that it burns through the brakes and gains momentum, going at a high rate of speed with no one in control, barreling through the middle of desolate Alaskan nowhere. It takes the pair a while to figure this out, while railroad command center dispatcher Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) tries to manage the situation. Of course, arrogant hot shot Barstow designed the foolproof, fail-safe transportation communication system, which naturally, is neither foolproof nor fail-safe when the shit hits the fan. Ranken, meanwhile, correctly assumes that his two escaped cons are on the train, along with a third passenger, a rail line employee named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), who eventually makes her way back from the second car to the fourth, where it's theoretically safer when the train inevitably crashes.

RUNAWAY TRAIN is one of the best films to come off the Cannon assembly line, but it's still basically a Cannon production, from a good chunk of Trevor Jones' score demonstrating that distinct '80s keyboard-and-drum-machine sound to the presence of perennial B-movie villain Ryan, best known for one of his rare good-guy roles in Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE and his other Cannon bad guy gigs in AVENGING FORCE and DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN. Nevertheless, RUNAWAY TRAIN got a lot of love from critics: it won rave reviews, was a Palme d'Or contender at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and received three Oscar nominations: Voight for Best Actor (William Hurt won for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN) Roberts for Best Supporting Actor (Don Ameche won for COCOON), and Henry Richardson for Film Editing (Thom Noble won for WITNESS). While it is a terrific genre film, it seems odd in retrospect that RUNAWAY TRAIN was such a critical favorite, especially given the dismissive treatment given to most Cannon fare. There's an argument to be made that the tenuous Kurosawa connection--1985 was also the year of RAN--made critics treat it with kid gloves or take it a little more seriously than they might have otherwise.

While seething with intensity, Voight and Roberts both use indecipherable accents and seem to be playing things far too broadly, with their performances--Voight's in particular--ranking among the hammiest to ever score Oscar nods. Roberts--back when he was supposed to be the Next Big Thing--really just offers a louder variation on his dumb, would-be gangster character in the previous year's THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, even using the same affected voice ("Aw, Manny...take me wit ya!" and "I need some shooooooes!" providing some memorable moments). Voight, in his showiest role in years and one of only four films he made in the 1980s, chews the scenery in ways unseen until his incredible performance over a decade later in ANACONDA. There's really not much difference in Voight's acting here ("You gonna clean dat spot!") or when he winks at Jennifer Lopez after he's barfed-up in a partially digested state by a giant CGI snake. Voight dials it up to 11, which is extremely entertaining, but it sometimes seems like it's too much considering all the praise he and Roberts received. Watching RUNAWAY TRAIN again after many years, it's easy to picture a less frothing Manny providing a serious stretch for say, Cannon stalwart Charles Bronson if he felt like breaking away from vigilante movies. Voight and Ryan rage through clenched teeth and make perfect adversaries (though playing a maniacal villain, Ryan actually comes off as more restrained than Voight), and while many have questioned Ranken's thought process in dropping from a chopper on to the runaway train when it means certain death, it just goes to show that yes, at its core, RUNAWAY TRAIN is really just a dumb Cannon action movie with John P. Ryan as a very John P. Ryan bad guy--a great, textbook example of a Cannon action movie, sure, and maybe a bit more gritty than most, but had Kurosawa's name not been attached to it, it seems doubtful this would've received the accolades and the respect it got from critics.

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