Two escaped convicts and a female railway worker find themselves trapped on a train with no brakes and nobody driving.
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
- William Shakespeare, Richard III
The United States of America is home to a quarter of the world's prisoners despite representing only five percent of the global population. The controversial prison-industrial complex is not only big business but part of our cultural mythology -- in our stories, good guys win and bad guys go to jail with justice served and the audience experiencing catharsis.
The prison escape film is one of a few cinematic sub-genres to buck this structural approach. In these stories we root for our protagonist(s) -- often wrongfully convicted but not always -- to escape oppression and cruelty for the promise land of freedom and open spaces. In these stories we recognize prisons as nightmarish and corrupt fortresses of torturous inhumanity.
'Runaway Train' blends a gritty prison escape with contained thriller elements as well as some fascinating themes about the nature of prisoners and sacrifice and redemption. It stars John Voight as Oscar "Manny" Manheim, a brutal bank robber who has been locked behind literally-welded bars for the last three years after two failed escapes from a remote Alaskan prison. With Manny back in gen pop -- much to the ire of Warden Ranken, who believes prisoners are animals and Manny to be the worst of them all -- Manny's plotting one final prison escape with his brother Jonah... Until tragedy strikes.
Ranken sends a prisoner to murder Manny. In the scuffle, the prison guards severely injure Jonah, forcing Manny to leave his brother behind and move up his escape plan with a little help from fellow con, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts). At the last minute, Buck begs Manny to tag along and the two men flee into the frozen Alaskan wilderness. The unlikely partners make it to town and stow away on a departing train, unaware the conductor has just suffered a heart attack and fallen out of the engine.
With the train picking up speed, the movie shifts between three POVs on a collision course of metal and emotion. 1) Manny and Buck as they realize the terrible danger they're in and meet another stowaway named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) who may know how to save their lives. 2) The railway employees who are trying to stop the train using new automatic failsafes only to get a life lesson in Murphy's law. 3) And the furious Warden Ranken who is hunting Manny, hoping to bring vengeance and his twisted sense of justice down upon Manny.
'Runaway Train' is a fascinating movie for many reasons, internal and external. On the outside looking in, it's based on a script written and abandoned by the legendary Akira Kurosawa. The on-location production and stunt work long proceeded the safety of CGI spectacle. Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky was a former Tarkovsky collaborator hoping to make Hollywood movies (he also directed 'Tango & Cash'). And this is one of a few action pictures to earn Academy Award acting nominations, for John Voight and Eric Roberts.
I personally came to 'Runaway Train' like so many '80s and '90s movies -- on cable TV where it played over and over on random Saturday afternoons. As a kid with a love for vehicles and action, I couldn't get enough of things like 'The A Team', 'Knight Rider', 'The Dukes of Hazzard', and 'Back to the Future'. And along comes a movie with a careening train at its center? Sign me up!
From this standpoint, 'Runaway Train' succeeds as a pure thrill ride. The action set-pieces are outstanding and terrifying and convey a visual story with as much suspense as possible. It would also make a fine double-billing with Tony's Scott's 'Unstoppable'.
But if we dig a little deeper, 'Runaway Train' is also a gut-wrenching drama, where the payoff comes in themes desperate for discussion. To put it another way, not only is this an action flick where Manny and Buck and Sara's lives are on the line, but also one where Manny could become the monster Ranken believes him to be. The stakes, therefore, are not simply will these three people survive and escape...
But will Manny lose his soul in the process?
To make this work, we must first become fascinated with Manny (and Buck and Sara). John Voight's performance is as gritty and over-the-top (at times) as the character itself, but you can't look away. Here's a broken man, beaten down by the system, and all he wants is the privilege of working at a job most of us would consider menial. Here's a man who could be both the hero and the villain of his own story. This dichotomy of violence and philosophy is simply enthralling. For their parts, Buck and Sara are much more low-key; they are flawed too, of course, but represent more standard and likeable characters with whom we empathize quickly and easily.
Either way, as that train barrels down the rails at high speeds, with Manny and Buck and Sara holding on for their lives, with Warden Ranken getting closer and closer, and the rail company effectively helpless, 'Runaway Train' ratchets up the tension to a sublime climax of men, machines, and monsters. So many films from our childhoods don't live up to later-in-life viewings; 'Runaway Train' is even better than I remember.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
'Runaway Train' roars onto Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time. A limited edition 3,000-print run, a clear case houses the loan Blu-ray plus a booklet with images and key art from the film as well as an essay written by Julie Kirgo. There is no DVD or Digital HD copy, nor any mention of Region locking on the disc or its packaging, but I have only played this Blu-ray in Region A equipment.
NOTE: this movie was previously released in Region B, but I don't have that disc in hand and am unable to comment on how it compares.
'Runaway Train' explodes onto Blu-ray with a filmmic, but damaged AVC MPEG-4 encoded framed in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Let's start with the problem areas. The source materials don't appear to be in terrific condition. There are numerous instances of dirt and debris, particularly in any of the optical transitions. Further, whether it be from the source elements or the production techniques, I'd never really call this Blu-ray sharp or highly resolved. Lastly, while black levels are pretty good, they're never inky.
That said, I love the way this movie looks. After growing up with 'Runaway Train' in pan-and-scan on VHS tape and Cable TV, this movie has never looked better. Also, the gritty production aesthetics and visible film grain only add to the sensation of watching an older print at a revival cinema. The movie's color palette is quite drab, but the available color pops occasionally, and skin tones seem accurate overall. Also I don't see any signs of encoding errors or poorly applied digital embellishments.
At the end of the day, you're never going to add this disc to your demo collection, but I applaud the way it exudes the feeling of watching FILM in an increasingly perfect-digital universe. I'm so happy to have this Blu-ray copy to enjoy.
'Runaway Train' bounds onto Blu-ray with a complex English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track that excels at stereo panning, but is fairly limited in terms of dynamic range.
While it's completely understandable that the film elements are as they appear, I really wish there had been a budget to modernize this sound mix a little more. On the positive side of things, dialog is clear even in chaotic prison or train action sequences. Also, the use of stereo to create the sense of on and off-screen action is superb. Trains and helicopters coming tearing and buzzing on of off-screen with a great deal of precision. This track also allowed me to hear all the different layers of the sound design, from the dozens of prisoner voices inside the jail to the clattering of the train rails. This is clearly the best 'Runaway Train' has ever sounded.
That said, compared to modern action movies, it's a bit of a letdown. The real problem is dynamic range -- the track sounds compressed at times, and there's no guttural LFE punch to land with the bigger action moments. All of this is to be expected, I suppose, but given the genre at hand, this track calling out to be both preserved for purists, and upgraded for modern systems along the lines of 'E.T.' or 'Back to the Future'.
Also worth noting. If you up-mix your audio using DTS:Neural:X or Dolby Surround, 'Runaway Train' does a pretty good job of panning sounds from back to front, creating an ultra wide sense of right and left, but sounds matrixed up into the height speakers get a little wonky at times. File this under good, but not great for up-mixing.
In addition to the stereo audio, you can also opt to watch the movie while listening to the Isolated Score Track, or Audio Commentary with Actor Eric Roberts, and film historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner. The only subtitle option is English SDH.
'Runaway Train' is pretty light on bonus materials, but Twilight Time includes the film's Original Theatrical Trailer (HD, 00:01:58), and MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (HD, 00:02:06), an Isolated Score Track, and Audio Commentary with Actor Eric Roberts, and film historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner.
'Runaway Train' is a gritty action movie that blends suspenseful set-pieces with discussion-worthy themes about a man fighting the duality of his violent nature and world... you know, set on a train hurtling out of control and destined to crash, killing all onboard [insert a thousand exclamation points here].
As a Blu-ray, the technical aspects aren't worthy of anyone's demo-disc collection, but after years of watching this one on VHS and cable TV, it's awesome to have a full 1080p HD transfer. It's a bit like watching an older print at a revival cinema, which adds to the overall experience.
Some Blu-rays we recommend because underwhelming movies are offset by outstanding audio and video capabilities, while others we recommend because incredible movies aren't weighed down by imperfect technicals. If you're a 'Runaway Train' fan, or love suspenseful action movies, this Blu-ray is Highly Recommended, warts and all.