Monday, March 03, 2008

Runaway Train

'Runaway Train' has an interesting pedigree. Set in Alaska and detailing an escape from a maximum security prison that takes an unexpected turn when cons on the run Manny (Jon Voight) and Buck (Eric Roberts) board a freight train whose driver keels over from a heart attack, it's directed by a Russian (Andrei Konchalovsky), from an original screenplay by a Japanese film-making legend (Akira Kurosawa) better known for his historical samurai dramas, rewritten by (amongst others) a former convict who later became an icon thanks to his role as Mr Blue in 'Reservoir Dogs' (Edward "Eddie" Bunker).

Acting wise, Voight is manic and unrestrained, Roberts plays the whiny fake tough guy so convincingly that you want to slap him every time he opens his mouth, and somewhere along the line the decision was taken to cast Rebecca de Mornay (who pretty much fits the bill as far as glamorous is concerned) as Sara, the short-haired, grubby-faced railroad worker caught napping on the titular locomotive. (Still, the frankly gorgeous Charlize Theron has played a putty-faced serial killer and a world-weary factory worked, so what do I know?)

Narratively, the film adheres to the classic three-act structure. Act one: prison; in which sadistic Warden Ranken (John P Ryan) is compelled by a court order to release notorious prison-breaker Manny from the cell he's been welded into for three years, Manny's fellow inmates herald him as a one-man fuck-you to authority, a hit on him fails and he breaks out with the help of Buck, who insists on accompanying him. Act two: the train/the railroad offices: in which Manny and Buck stow themselves onboard one of the unmanned locos making up a four-car unit hauling freight, only for said mode of transport to gather speed as it hurtles out of control, their lives in the hands of controller Frank Barstow (Kyle T Heffner) whose immediate reaction is to derail the thing rather than risk further damage and/or loss of life. Act three: the train/the helicopter: in which Ranken, his prison ablaze from rioting, discovers that Manny is on the train and heads off for a mano-a-mano confrontation.

If the above paragraphs make 'Runaway Train' sound (respectively) schizophrenic, tiresome and formulaic, then all I can say is that it should be.
I ought to be able to write it off as an exercise in macho bullshit, replete with endless phallic imagery.

However ...

'Runaway Train' is the kind of film that lives up to the mission statement of this blog: it doesn't lend itself to analysis; and while it might not agitate the mind, it certainly agitates the nerves. 'Runaway Train' is a raw, edgy, unrelenting thriller. The prison scenes are brutal. The Alaskan backdrop is snowy, harsh, desolate. The characters are hard-bitten and their dialogue reflects it (Sara: "You're an animal"; Manny: "No. Worse. Human"). The train itself - particularly after a brilliantly executed set-piece where an oncoming freighter is diverted off the main line into a siding, only for the runaway to pulverise the boxcar as it ploughs ever forward - is a twisted hunk of metal.

The speed of film is keyed into the speed of the train. Most films build to a climax; 'Runaway Train' bears down on it - inevitably, irreversibly. That Manny quotes Nietzsche at one point ("What doesn't kill me makes me stronger") only emphasises the point: without any artsy digressions or intellectualising, 'Runaway Train' is a perfect existential film, cutting across the screen as forcefully as the train cuts a dark line through the wintry landscape.

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