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Movie Review – Runaway Train (1986)

train out of control

With Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca DeMornay

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

Written by Djordje Milecevic, Paul Zindel, Edward Bunker, from a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa

train out of control is a movie out of control. At best, it’s a cold, brutal portrayal of life in a maximum-security prison; at worst, it’s a failed parable about the futility of escape.

Escape for hardened criminals Manny (Jon Voight) and Buck (Eric Roberts) means an elusive shot to freedom, but Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (Siberiad, Maria’s lovers) tries to infuse their quest with a deeper meaning. He seems determined to bring home his parallel vision of an out-of-control society, and neither the script nor the actors fare well under the weight of his noble intentions.

At the film’s epicenter is the massive, haunting silhouette of a runaway train thundering through the Alaskan mountain wilderness. Manny and Buck, through a rather unbelievable chain of events, find themselves aboard the screaming metal monster after escaping from their prison cells. At first they believe they have won their freedom, but slowly begin to realize that there is no engineer in charge, that they have traded one set of bonds for another and are on their own, helpless.

Powerless, yes; alone, no. It turns out there’s a third passenger on board: Sara (Rebecca DeMornay), a railroad worker who was on the train when it first broke free from the yard. She is the rational counterweight to Manny and Buck’s madness.

Although filmed in color, train out of control looks like a black and white feature to all intents and purposes. The train is a black ball accelerating against the pristine white Alaskan snow. Dark trees and bare rocks endlessly rush past us, and everything else seems a pale shade of gray. The only notable exception comes in an excruciatingly painful scene where Manny’s hand is crushed between a train coupling. The flow of blood, filmed with a rather detached nonchalance, contrasts sharply with the untouched snow of the surrounding landscape and lifts the viewer out of the dull depression caused by the rest of the image.

The screenplay – by Djordje Milecevic, Paul Zindel, Edward Bunker and God knows who else – was based on an earlier script by the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai and Ran). Unfortunately, something was lost in translation. Or maybe a lot of things. Whenever so many writers get their hands on a script, trouble can’t be far behind. Kurosawa’s vision was swallowed by the committee and spat out in unrecognizable form, resulting in authoritative pretense and laughable dialogue.

Acting doesn’t help. Academy Award winner Jon Voight best known for his powerful roles in midnight cowboy and Go home, struggles with his dialogue throughout and is forced to utter schlock lines such as “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” He overstates the role, but his forced histrions are subtle understatements of the drama of Eric Roberts, who garnered popular and critical praise for his psychopathic role in Star 80, can’t control himself here. He dances across the screen in a restless mass of nervous manners embarrassingly reminiscent of his turn. The Pope of Greenwich Village. Roberts wouldn’t know the subtext if he bit it. The manic energy that worked so well in Star 80 is hard to take seriously here.

Forget Voight’s Best Actor nomination for this film; also forget Roberts’ Best Supporting Actor nomination. The former is a fluke based largely on respect for past performance; the latter is beyond comprehension.

Rebecca DeMornay, almost unrecognizable from her previous roles in Risky business and The slugger’s wife, is more than competent as a scruffy bystander caught in circumstances beyond his control. Keneth McMillan (Ragtime, Dunes) is also very good in a small role, as a railroad boss desperately trying to avert disaster.

While director Konchalovsky can’t quite pull all of these elements together into a cohesive whole – and he doesn’t – he knows how to tighten the screws, hold and build suspense throughout. This is where the strength of the film lies. Each frame of train out of control packs more tension than most thrillers can boast in their entirety.

Too bad he couldn’t get the rest Form on track.

Reviewed by David Wisehart

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