Sunday, December 6, 2015

Runaway Train

  I didn't expect much from this mid-80's thriller. As a Cannon film, it doesn't really fit in their usual wheelhouse. There's no major action hero, no martial arts, no ninjas, no war, none of that stuff. Instead it's a gritty survival thriller with two escaped convicts on a runaway train. This isn't a premise with a lot of wiggle room. I mean, you either deliver a taut, suspense-filled flick, or you don't, and your movie sucks. Much to my surprise, Runaway Train is actually rather great. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts play the two convicts, and somehow everything just clicks. Their acting is phenomenal, the script is great, the direction is simply electric. Everything about this movie just... works. It's a massive well-oiled machine that runs on pure unleaded tension.

  Why have I never heard about how great this movie is? Why isn't it mentioned more often? One word: Cannon. For the same reason it sticks out like a sore thumb on their filmography, nobody really gave a fighting chance. Sure, I heard it got good reviews, but it had no lasting impact. Cannon films aren't taken seriously, and I feel like that was a big mistake. If this had been released by Warner Bros., or 20th Century Fox, or Universal, or Columbia pictures- it'd be hailed as an absolute classic. But, because it's a Cannon film... the most you'll hear about it is on a list of "The 20 Best B Movies You've Never Seen" and that's a crying shame.

  Once things get underway and the train is out of control, I realized I had no idea how the movie was going to end. The two main characters are criminals. Not wrongly-convicted, heart-of-gold criminals, but real honest to goodness criminals. Why is that significant? Because the movie could kill them off. It doesn't try to endear them to us, it doesn't try to make them sympathetic. These are just two men trying to survive. It doesn't make a case for their survival, it simply presents their struggle as is. I realized that this movie could go either way. They could die, they could survive, they might survive but get captured, or they survive and complete their escape. Or something entirely else might happen. All of this is important because a lesser movie would've telegraphed it's ending right away.

  Most of these survival thrillers go one of two routes, they endear the characters to you to such a point where it's usually one of two endings. Either the protagonists survive, yay. Or they die in a cliche tearjerker scene with soft music playing as they die. Both are cliche, and both tend to undercut the suspense and tension of everything that came before it. You'd assume that a movie about runaway train would have either one of two endings. The train crashes... or... it doesn't. Well, far be it from me to give it away- either way, but the movie is crafted in such a way that you can't see the ending coming. It builds the tension among the characters to the breaking point so that it's no longer even about the train- it's about the characters' choices.

  One could even make the argument that it's not the train that's on a deadly collision course... it's the characters. Their life choices have put them on this path, and it's all come down to this. Voight and Robert share some fantastic scenes in here and I ate it up. Even if Voight's performance occasionally bordered on scenery chewing, it was still amazing. Roberts performance was very unique and weird. The two played off of each other really well. At the same time this is all going on, their sadistic prison warden is spearheading a manhunt looking for them. He keeps popping up in the movie often enough that we eventually realize he was never going to be a throwaway character. How the hell is involved in the ongoing plot though? You'll seriously have to find out for yourself.

  At face value, character drama aside, the movie still buzzes along like a deadly thrill machine. It's not just a runaway train, it's a runaway train... in freezing temperatures. Everything is icy, slick, and that much more lethal. Each time an issue or a hurdle is overcome, there's mere minutes til they're faced with a brand new one- and not just the people on the train, but the freaked out guys in charge of trying to stop it. At one point, one of the guys questions why they aren't able to stop it with all the high tech fancy technology in the world these days. Someone else inserts, somethings just can't be stopped. It's such a simple exchange, but played to great effect.

   The whole thing takes on a subtle symbolism about life, and the choices we make in it.  But, if that's not your slice of pie- fret not, the movie is a crazy non-stop survival thriller even without reading into it. This is no guilty pleasure, this is probably the most honestly great movie to ever come out under the Cannon brand. It's incredibly intense, very well acted, well written, and the effects are impeccable. Highly recommended.

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