Runaway Train (1985)

2009 #11
Andrei Konchalovsky | 106 mins | TV | 15 / R

This review contains major spoilers.

Runaway TrainRunaway Train bagged itself three Oscar nominations and one for the Palme d’Or back in 1986, which rather begs the question, how?

On the awards-worthy side, it’s based on an Akira Kurosawa script and features grittier-than-average direction and performances. On the other, the majority of its story and supporting characters feel closer to other ’80s actioners like Lethal Weapon or Die Hard. The focus on a high concept (the title says it all), emphasis on exciting action sequences, the way the plot is structured, the faintly pantomime villains, comical supporting characters, and occasional slips into fantasy (one character was welded into his cell, the state the prison has degraded to, the whole concept of the runaway train and its computer control centre) — none of these elements suggest your typical Oscar nominee, but instead a half-forgotten minor action flick.

The lead characters and their performances, by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, are above average for the genre — this is where two of the Oscar nods come from — but they’re not notably superior to other outstanding examples (see Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard). Praising the acting can only cover the two leads, at best, because the villains and supporting roles are as one-dimensional and clichéd as you’d expect from the genre. The other Oscar nomination was for editing, one that’s more obviously deserved. Visually, the sequences of the train smashing through the countryside are fairly impressive. Perhaps the camerawork deserved a nod in this respect too, as it lends the film a gritty real-world feel that may be explain some’s distraction from the otherwise familiar values. It can’t mask them all though — for example, the occasionally brutal violence is still denied any real-world punch thanks to the fantastical sheen created by some plot points.

The notable exception to most of this is the ending, where Voight’s anti-hero stands atop a train engine we — and he — know to be doomed, his prison warden nemesis handcuffed inside, and rides it out of sight into the fog. It’s a classy finale that flirts with the downbeat ending, though doesn’t quite succumb to it because we also know the young sidekick and girl have survived. Nonetheless, there’s pleasingly no postscript, simply fading to black after the engine disappears into the mist. The titular train, one might theorise, is like some mythic beast — it arrives through snow-mist, leaves devastation in its wake, and then disappears back into it. But that might be getting a bit too pretentious…

In focusing on these lofty pretensions (which may have been forced on it by nominations and some reviews), one can become distracted from the fact that, taken as a straight-up high-concept action-adventure, Runaway Train has an awful lot going for it. And if you want to get pretentious about it, well, it might just support that too.

As a final aside: one of the film’s most memorable moments, in retrospect, is down to an accident of fate. Near the end a character looks at a space shuttle on TV and muses, “with all this high technology, why couldn’t we stop it?” Just 11 days after Runaway Train’s US release, Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch, killing its seven crew members. For anyone aware of this correlation, it’s an incredibly poignant moment.

4 out of 5

Though the Radio Times review I’ve linked to says Runaway Train is an 18, it was reclassified in 2008. [It has since been updated.]

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