The Unstoppable Escape
On paper "Runaway Train" doesn't sound much, we have prisoners on the run from a diabolical warden and they end up on an out of control train. Yes that does sound cliche and leads you to think of various other movies, for me those were "Unstoppable" and "Lock Up" with both coming later. But the thing about "Runaway Train" is that it is more then just cliches, it is a complete movie which serves up action, but also great camera work and characters that have depth and I am not just on about the obvious characters because all of the characters have depth. Yes "Runaway Train" is now over 25 years old and in fairness a little dated but it is one of the best movies you will see involving a runaway train.
Having spend 3 years welded into his cell Oscar 'Manny' Manheim (Jon Voight - The Odessa File) wins his case to be allowed freedom to enter the yard much to the annoyance of Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) who thinks all prisoners are animals especially Manny who he would love to see dead. But with the chance to mingle it doesn't take Manny long to prepare for his next break out and this time young convict Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts - Class) is going with him, helping Manny to escape in the laundry basket. But after crawling through sewers and running through the snow in sub zero temperatures they climb aboard a train to get as far away as they can. What they don't realise is that shortly after the train starts off the driver dies of a heart attack and the only other person on their is female engineer Sara (Rebecca De Mornay). With the warden on their trail and the control tower trying to stop what they believe is an out of control and unmanned train Manny, Buck and Sara must also try and stop the train or face dying.
On a simple level "Runaway Train" is a mix of cliches starting with a prison drama as we enter Stonehaven, the maximum security prison run by Warden Ranken who has no respect for the prisoners especially Manny who he takes sadistic pleasure in making life difficult for. Having established a connection between Manny and Buck it then evolves into a prison escape movie as they grease up and cover themselves in plastic wrap to protect from the cold before crawling through the sewers and into the freeing outside. And then once they have escaped it basically turns into a runaway train movie with them on the out of control train, speeding up and heading for probable doom. We do get the warden delusionally going after Manny but the focus is not on the conflict between these characters but the drama of the train.
But "Runaway Train" is more than just cliches and visually it not only features some great scenery but also great camera work, from the train thundering over an olden wooden bridge which shakes as it passes to the desperate attempts to uncouple the engine as the options start to run out. More importantly is that it features great writing as we have various microcosms of drama going on with the most obvious one being that on the train with the tension rising between Manny, Buck and Sara as Manny sadistically uses the young convict who naively idolizes him. We also have the drama at the control station as there is conflict over how to stop the train and whether sacrificing three lives is the right thing to do. And I could go on because rather than having just the usual characters in situations the writing, the conflicts and emotion makes "Runaway Train" more than just action.
At the centre of this are really two performances those from Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Now Roberts as Buck does border on the annoying, he seems over enthusiastic but in being so he gets across that aspect of being in awe of Manny, being his biggest fan and wanting to impress and be like him. It leads to a great scene between Manny and Buck over what happens on the outside and whether you can make it going straight, doing an unrewarding pointless job because that is all a convict can get. And that scene comes to life because of Jon Voight as he inhabits Manny, he makes him sadistic and a user of people, knowing that in Buck he has someone he can boss about but he also delivers the desperation of his situation that he can't go back inside.
What this all boils down to is that on paper "Runaway Train" sounds like a cliche movie combining evil prison wardens, escape convicts and an out of control train. But the strength of the movie is the fantastic writing which makes it more about the drama and the characters rather than just the action.