Release Date(s)1985 (October 11, 2016)
Studio(s)The Canon Group/Golan-Globus/MGM/UA (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Drew Feinberg, while the A/V disc comments are by Bill Hunt.]
In Runaway Train, it swiftly becomes apparent that Manny Manheim (Jon Voight) is an alumnus of the same school of self-reliance and cocky verbiage that Scarface’s Tony Montana attended (“Who do I trust? Me, that’s who!”). The movie starts off with Manny getting released from “the hole,” after being welded in for three years by sadistic Warden Renken (who makes Gary Oldman in The Professional seem like Katie Couric). When asked why the other prisoners love Manny, Renken begrudgingly responds: “Well, they’re mostly animals, just like he is.” He and Manny have a personal mutual loathing of each other that borders on fanaticism, and one gets the impression that at least part of Manny’s desire for escape is to prove that Renken couldn’t break him.
So escape Manny does, with help from the dimwitted Buck (Eric Roberts). Together, they hop aboard what they think is the express train to freedom. But when the engineer drops dead, they wind up instead on a two-man ride towards a seemingly unavoidable and messy death. For as much suffering as Manny had to endure in prison, it’s nothing compared to being trapped on a train with such annoying comrades. First, he has to endure Eric Roberts, who seems to be channeling a combination of Forrest Gump and Cletus from The Simpsons, all the while spouting such intelligent comments as, “I just put my hands in a pile of shit!” Later, they come across Sara (Rebecca DeMornay). In her defense, she’s more naive than flat-out dumb. But she still manages to make keen observations like, “Guess you guys picked the wrong train to get on.” She later professes to Manny that she “feels in her heart” a miracle is going to save them from impending doom, never mind that crossing one’s fingers is probably not the most efficient way to get oneself off a runaway train going 80+ mph.
Andrei Konchalovsky’s direction is top-notch here – he truly succeeds in making a nail biter of a movie, with exterior shots of the train that are awe-inspiring and make you long for the days before blue screen. The film is based on an unproduced Akira Kurosawa screenplay. Ex-con turned novelist and screenwriter Eddie Bunker (Mr. Blue for all you rabid Reservoir Dogs fans out there) co-wrote the new script, which lends authenticity to the entire project. Then, of course, there’s Jon Voight, who gives of the best performances of his career and earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for it. It would have been easy for Manny be a flat character in the hands of a lesser actor, but Voight makes him both frightening and sympathetic, a difficult tightrope to walk. The other standout performance is John P. Ryan as the warden and Manny’s adversary. This film would simply not have worked if we didn’t truly loathe the warden, thus helping us to better understand Manny’s motivations.
The film is presented on Blu-ray in 1080p HD at the correct 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Contrast is fantastic, with deep and detailed blacks. Runaway Train is a gritty-looking film by its very nature. Moderate print grain is apparent at all times, but it’s never excessive and is always in keeping with the film’s look. There’s a little bit of dust apparent, and the occasional nick on the print, but again it’s seldom excessive. Colors tended to be muted and cool, appropriate given the film’s wintertime setting, but are still pleasingly accurate and nuanced. Texturing and overall image detail are both very good. It goes without saying that this is probably the best this film has ever looked on disc, and it’s hard to imagine the film looking better than this in theaters too. Audio is available in English 2.0 stereo in DTS-HD Master Audio format, with optional English SDH subtitles. The mix is pleasing overall, clean, free of distortions, and with nice dialogue clarity. The stage is medium-wide, with nice use of sound effects, and very good bass reinforcement. This isn’t an award-winning audio presentation on disc, but it serves the film well.
The carry-over extras from the previous DVD release include the film’s theatrical trailer (1:58) and an MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (2:06), both now in HD. To this, Twilight Time has added composer Trever Jones’ synth-driven score as an isolated track, as well as a good new audio commentary with actor Eric Roberts, and film historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner.
Runaway Train is worlds better than your standard action flick, elevated from start to finish by its practical production and gritty realism. Even its weakest cast members never feel like movie stars with schmutz on their faces playing prisoners. Add in a couple truly great performances and solid, workmanlike direction, and you’ve got a genuine, no-frills winner.
- Drew Feinberg and Bill Hunt