TLDR: It’s almost brilliant, which is to say: a lot better than it sounds. And, because I’ve realized that even the rest of my review tends to have a lot of scarily negative language, let me state that, on the whole, I think that the end result is a worthwhile watch. The Man might not conquer Himself–but he does free himself. That’s a spoiler, except not really. This movie might be grim, but it’s honest, never excessive, and ultimately, if not wholesome, cathartic.
It stars John Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca DuMornay, and was directed by the guy who made Tango & Cash, hmmmmm….and, what, really? And also the 1997 The Odyssey miniseries and The Lion in Winter remake. That’s slightly impressive.
So the title sounds bland–another reviewer noted that it sounds like the kind of movie where Charles Bronson is the hero engineer who saves all the passengers except for crazy bomber Dennis played Hopper, who gets launched into a precipice at the finale–and therefore the title “Runaway Train” fails at a fundamental level: selling what this movie is about. It isn’t “man vs technology”–it’s “man vs himself.”
Try explaining that to someone who hasn’t seen it already. This movie is kind of disserved, weirdly enough, by its simple, uncomplicated storyline and characters that don’t lend themselves well to outside explaination. As a young Riders, I vaguely remember my older brother, in his counter-cultural/Nietzchean phase, expounding on this movie, but even hero worship couldn’t induce me to watch it, too. Also he locked me out of the TV room. It just doesn’t sound uninteresting: there are these two convicts who break out of jail and get stuck on, wait for it, a runaway train. And then there’s a girl who turns up, because of course there is.
It was always the inclusion of the female character that threw me….which, after seeing the movie, shouldn’t have. Her role isn’t pandering, isn’t useless, is purposeful, and isn’t meant as a love interest. She’s a vital part of the movie’s plot and serves as a (stressed and under pressure) moral center–a thing very much needed as the pace picks up (literally) and the tenuous partnership between Manny and Buck starts to break down into two dangerous animals, snarling and circling each other in a trap. (Yes, yes, that’s not an original metaphor, but it’s one that the film itself fully embraces, with multiple references to the duo as “animals” and even to the train itself as an escaped “beast.”)
So: plot. The plot is what it is–convicts get stuck on a runaway train–but it’s meaningful because of who it happens to. About thirty minutes is used to set up the characters: Manny, who is revered by the prison populace because he’s smarter, wiser, more philosophical than them, has escaped twice already, and also is a vicious, sociopathic killer. Then there’s Buck, who is younger, not particularly smart, idolizes Manny, and joins him on the way out. Manny won’t and can’t stay locked in his cage forever, not when he knows his enemy and his enemy is prison warden Ranken (John Ryan). Ranken is just as sociopathic and vicious as Manny–he’s just more capable of conforming to social norms… when he has to. The struggle between him and Manny is therefore that of one man against his mirror image: a relentless force that seeks to destroy by crushing down, and a merciless one that seeks to destroy by smashing through. (There are also a couple of minor characters in the railway offices, but never mind them.)
Manny, despite how brutalized he’s become, still is intelligent enough to know that, somewhere, there is a life worth living, and that, in some way, society is worth being a part of. He also knows damn well that he’s neither capable nor particularly desirous of doing so, while–potentially–Buck could be. If he tries. If he must. Maybe. That’s where Rebecca DuMornay’s character, a junior engineer becomes a moral hinge–not because she’s a love interest, but just because she arrives with the news that the situation is desperate and yet injects a certain amount of humanity into the two males’ testosterone-ridden, panicky, let’s double down on the metaphor and call it animalistic breakdown.
Since the movie’s interest is so character-based, it’s a given that the performances ought to be good. They are very good. Voight is cold, sullen, and lashes out into blurry intensity when it’s called for, and also has a mustache. Aparently Robert Duvall was interested in the part, and while that could well have worked (mustache!), Duvall would have been more theatrical. Manny is grim and realistic. Roberts is more energetic, jittering and slurring with a backwoodsy accent and bright-eyed enthusiasm that slowly gets drained and beaten out of him by the cold and encroaching death and the closing walls. DuMornay’s Sara is as emotional as the men–desperate, scared, antagonistic, excited–without ever being hysterical or even annoying…which is good writing and directing as well as good acting. John P. Ryan, as Ranken, is cool and contemptuous, hatefulness under a veneer of calm. And everyone genuinely looks like they’re in the process of freezing to death.
That’s not the only other part of the movie that’s great. The cinematography is good: cold, snowy, vast, fast, relentless. The stunts are good: naturalistic, engaging, scary. The music is good, unobtrusive when not needed, low-key and rousing when needed, and not too 80s, either.
And…well, yep, that’s about all I’ve got to say.
Rated: I say YEAH!