SPOILERS. MANY SPOILERS.
I saw Runaway Train upon its initial release at the United Artists Theaters at Golden Ring Mall right outside of Baltimore with my old friend director David Butler. It was a Monday night. For a couple of months, the theater ran a dollar movie night special on Mondays. I was there practically every week with some friends. It didn't matter what was playing. Any film was worth a dollar.
I had no expectations walking into the theater. I had not gone to see this film specifically. It was probably just the next film that started after we arrived. Had I taken the time to consider the film, I might have opted for something else instead. It was a Cannon film. I mainly associated the company with low rent Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson action films. I had no idea I was going to be seeing one of the most harrowing and intellectual thrillers of the decade.
From the critical review heavy trailer below, it is obvious that Cannon was trying to differentiate this film from its normal schlock:
Considering its pedigree, it is not surprising that Runaway Train rose above the genre. The film was based on a script by the great Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, who planned to shoot the film with Henry Fonda and Lee Marvin in the mid-60s. The project, however, fell apart. That was not necessarily a tragedy. As interesting as the Kurosawa film might have been, I can't imagine it packing the same over-the-top emotional intensity of this version. The Russian director, Andrei Konchalovsky, and his writers, added just the right amount of philosophical nihilism. Writer/Actor, and former prison inmate, Eddie Bunker, added a certain realism.
The film starts in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison in Alaska. The prison has just lost a legal battle to keep prisoner Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) welded into a cell in solitary confinement. The central theme is stated upfront in a news interview with Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) after the decision. When asked by a reporter how he could keep a man welded into a cell, Ranken replies that "Manheim isn't a man. He's an animal." The film could be viewed as a meditation on what, if anything, differentiates us from animals.
Manny, a bank robber who previously escaped twice from the prison, is a hero to fellow inmates. One of his most ardent devotees is a young punk named Buck McGeehy played by Eric Roberts. Manny is everything Buck aspires to be: A skilled, hardened criminal respected and feared by the other inmates. Buck rests on his reputation as a boxer, but it is a skill that Manny dismisses as being worth "two dead flies." What interests Manny is Buck's job pushing a laundry cart. After a brutal assassination attempt, instigated by Ranken, Manny realizes that it is time to jump the wall again, and he avails himself of Buck's assistance to reach an opening to the sewers.
Here's a clip of the assassination scene:
As Manny prepares to escape, Buck impulsively joins him. It is a decision that well defines his character. Buck is first and foremost a follower, prone to acting without weighing the consequences first. He feels he and his hero will be partners if he escapes with him. Manny shares no such illusion. He neither encourages or discourages the young wannabe. Buck's decision is irrelevant to him. He does, however, wonder why someone would want to join him when "he's at war with the whole world and everyone in it."
|Buck and Manny picking their train.|
Now another group of people enter the drama: The railroad company personnel. The conflict revolves around Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner,) who devised a computerized switching system, and supervisor Eddie MacDonald (Kenneth McMillan). whose only desire is to limit the company's potential liability. MacDonald wants to immediately derail the supposedly empty train. Barstow believes his new system will allow him to safely resolve the dilemma. T.K. Carter provides the comic relief, much as he did in John Carpenter's The Thing.
As the train continues to increase in speed, Manny fears something is amiss. Buck has no such worries. The film now takes a slight breather to let us get to know our two convicts better. Many critics say that Manny is very intelligent. I disagree. In his own way, Manny is just as impulsive as Buck. While he does weigh the consequences of his actions, Manny's judgement is hampered by the fact that he doesn't care whether he lives or dies. He later expresses his attitude with the words: "Win? Lose? What does it matter?" Manny's main intellectual strength, which isn't shared by the somewhat dim-witted Buck, is self-awareness. It is illustrated in this clip where Manny offers Buck some sound advice that he himself was incapable of following.
As that clip illustrated, the performances in Runaway Train are broad. Very broad. Most of the people I know who dislike this film complain that the performances are too over the top. That, of course, is a matter of taste but I find them extremely compelling. So did the Academy. John Voight was nominated for Best Actor. Eric Roberts was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. That's pretty good for a B action film. (The editor, Henry Richardson, was also nominated.)
Barstow works to clear the line ahead of the runaway. Unfortunately, one of the engineers doesn't respond quickly enough and loses his caboose, and nearly his conductor, in a collision with the runaway. Now MacDonald overrules Barstow and demands that the seemingly-unmanned runaway be derailed before there is any loss of life. An aging signal maintainer is sent to flip the switch to send the train to its doom. However, as he settles back into his truck to watch the coming crash, he hears a whistle coming from the train. It is manned. Barstow orders him to switch the signal to keep the runaway on the main line.
The whistle comes as a surprise to Manny and Buck as well. They were considerably shaken from by the collision and plan to investigate. Fortunately, they see a person trudging toward them on the locomotive walkway. They subdue the person when she enters, and lo-and-behold, it is third billed Rebecca De Mornay, whom you had probably already forgotten was supposed to be in the film.
|Rebecca De Mornay as the late Sara.|
After a perfunctory invitation to rape by Buck, Sara succinctly unloads all of the exposition we will need for the rest of the film. She explains that she is a maintenance worker who snuck into the second engine to take a nap. She was awakened by the collision and started blowing the horn. She tells them that when multiple engines are joined together, they are controlled by the first engine. Finally, she tells them that the door between the first and second engines is jammed. Unable to stop the train, she was heading to the last engine, which will be the safest place to be when the train eventually crashes into something.
That's all Manny needs to hear. He wants to jump. That means Buck is going, too. Sara warns them that the fall will kill them. Manny is undeterred. However, she gets their attention when she says she knows how to slow, if not stop, the train. She says if they break the bus cables between the engines, the engines will shut off. They decide to break the connections. This is a very important decision because, back at the control center, we learn the train is fast approaching the old Seneca bridge. The bridge can only handle trains going fifty-miles-an-hour. The runaway is traveling at ninety-two-miles-an-hour. At that speed, it will destroy the bridge. Meanwhile, Warden Rankin, who has been searching a glacier from a helicopter, gets word that the prisoners' clothes have been found at the rail yard.
Manny, Buck and Sara manage to break the cable between the third and fourth engines easily enough. They have a harder time with the connection between the second and third engines, but they manage to break it just as the train crosses the bridge. The emergency crew at the bridge see the three of them between the engines as the train. That's two more people than they expected. Ranken is now suddenly interested in the train. He goes to the control room to talk with Barstow, but he is initially rebuffed. Ranken, however, does not take no for an answer, as the clip below shows.
Manny, Buck and Sara arrive in the second engine. Sara shows them the blocked door to the first engine. The convicts are unable to open it. Undeterred, Manny convinces dim-witted Buck to try to climb around the side of the speeding, ice-covered locomotive to get to the front engine. Watching safely from inside, Manny comments on Buck's guts and stupidity. Sara is appalled. After a few, harrowingly unsuccessful attempts to climb to the front, Buck tries to get back into the car, but Manny won't let him. Eventually, Sara pulls Manny away from the door long enough for Buck to fall inside. Enraged, Manny kicks and bullies Buck until he agrees to try again. Sara horrified, revisits the theme, by calling Manny an animal. "No, worse," Manny replies. "Human."
Sara attacks Manny to prevent him from forcing Buck out to certain death. Buck, her former would-be rapist, rises to her defense. Now the believer turns against his God. They parry with each other, Buck armed with a wrench and Manny armed with a knife. Sara, the innocent, shouts for Buck to kill Manny, calling into question who is indeed the real human. Manny, however, is the one who ends the confrontation by dropping his knife. He can't bring himself to kill his former disciple. In the aftermath, Buck berates his erstwhile hero in what is probably Eric Roberts' best moment as an actor, and that includes his work in films I wrote.
Wow. Talk about a Big Gloom, that all is lost moment always caps the second act of film. Now only are Manny, Buck and Sara condemned to certain death on the train, Manny has completely lost his faith. All is indeed lost.
Here's the clip:
Unbeknownst to the trio on the train, their fate is being decided at the railroad headquarters. The train is fast approaching a dangerous curve near a chemical plant. If it crashes into the plant, there will be countless casualties. The decision is reluctantly made to shunt the train onto a dead end and derail it, even though it will cost the lives of all aboard. Sara feels the train being sent onto the side line. She knows what it means. She asks Buck to hold her because she doesn't want to die alone. Buck obliges, telling her that everything will be alright. Manny laughs scornfully. "We all die alone," he says.
But not so fast....
Warden Ranken arrives in his helicopter. Not willing to let Manny escape, even in death, he sends an officer down on a ladder to the roof of the first engine. Unfortunately, the officer loses his footing, falls onto the second engine breaking its front window, and then falls to his death. Through the broken front window, a now energized Manny taunts Ranken. Ranken, obsessed with Manny, decides to take a chance on the ladder. Manny is only too happy to greet him. He climbs through the broken window and jumps toward the first engine. When he disappears out of sight, Buck and Sara assume he is dead, but he isn't. In a sequence that still makes me cringe in pain, Manny pulls himself up onto the front engine and gets the best of Ranken, handcuffing him to some metal just out of reach of the button that will stop the engine and save all of their lives.
Ranken soon discovers he has underestimated Manny. With Ranken as his prisoner, Manny is content to die because he has now obtained his freedom. Ranken pretends to be equally unafraid to die, but it is an act and he soon tries to convince his nemesis to stop the train. No dice. Finally, he says, "What about the punk and the girl?"
Tellingly, the self-absorbed Manny hadn't even considered the fate of his fellow companions since he jumped from the second engine. However, this final ride is reserved for him and Ranken alone. Going back to the second engine, he breaks the ice and release the coupling. Buck and Sara jump to their feet and run to the window in utter amazement. Not only is Manny still alive, he has saved them. As their engine slows and falls behind, Buck yells frantically for Manny to shut the train down.
It is a great moment, on one level Buck's faith in Manny has been justified. However, as Buck watches his hero wave goodbye and climb to the top of the first engine in triumph, it is clear he never has and never would understand Manny. It has always been clear what Buck wanted: He wanted to be respected by the criminal elite. Now, as a result of the escape, he will be. However, Buck will always know he will never be like Manny. He is too weak, but it is that very weakness that gives him his humanity. He is a better man than when he started.
Ignoring the captive Ranken, Manny climbs to the top of the first engine as it races toward destruction. Walking into the wind, with his arms extended in a Christ-like manner, he is finally free. The film ends with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard III. It reads: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity." "But I know none, therefore am no beast."
Is Manny a beast? By Shakespeare's definition, I would say yes, because he showed pity and saved Buck and Sara. As defined by the film, Manny is not an animal. He is indeed human.
Here's the clip:
Critics today tend to compare Runaway Train to the more successful film Speed. That is a facile comparison based almost entirely on the plot device of passengers being endangered on vehicles of mass transit. Speed is an entertaining film, with a prominent romantic subplot, but it has none of the emotional depth of Runaway Train. (Trust me, if Runaway Train were remade today, they would add a non-rapey subplot between Buck and Sara.) A much more accurate comparison would be the 1968 Paul Newman chain gang film Cool Hand Luke.
Cool Hand Luke is a classic late-sixties homage to non-conformity. It is also a favorite of mine, and I have been known to project my 16mm print in the backyard on nice summer evenings. Like Runaway Train, Cool Hand Luke is a drama about a prisoner who cannot be broken by the system. Superficially, the main characters seem very different. Paul Newman's Luke is certainly more charming and charismatic than Jon Voight's Manny. Manny is a hardened criminal, fully capable of murder. Luke, on the other hand, has been imprisoned for the nonthreatening act of cutting the heads off parking meters. Both men are heroes to the general population of their respective prisons. Manny starts as a hero. Luke slowly becomes a hero, with the former top dog, Dragline (George Kennedy) becoming his chief disciple. Like Voight and Roberts, Newman and Kennedy were also nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. However, both Newman and Kennedy went home with the statuettes.
Here's the trailer:
I do not doubt that most people would prefer to spend an evening with the charming, easy-going Luke rather than the harsh, animalistic Manny. However, I believe Manny is actually the more compassionate human being. Although Luke is willing to charm and entertain his followers when the mood strikes him, he ultimately expresses little concern for them, even Dragline, who, like Buck, impulsively follows him in an escape. Manny, on the other hand, treats his disciple Buck with undisguised contempt. However, when they come to blows, Manny is the one who throws down his weapon because he doesn't have the heart to kill the young man who idolizes him. Buck's hero worship pricks his conscience, and ultimately Manny fulfills Buck's faith by saving his life. In other words, Manny actually does something for his fellow man (and woman.) Luke doesn't. He remains completely self-centered. He only maintains his hero status because he was never broken. That, somehow, encourages the other prisoners, despite the fact that they all remain broken. Dragline does show of spark of courage when Luke is killed, but it is a brief rebellion. He remains in chains.
Runaway Train is a great under-appreciated film of the 1980s. No matter how many times I've seen it, it always elicits a strong emotional response from me. I am also delighted that I had the opportunity to put words in Eric Roberts' mouth on my Revelation Road trilogy.
Here's Eric in the trailer of the second film in the series:
If you haven't seen Runaway Train, do yourself a favor and check it out immediately.
|Yours truly with Eric Roberts|