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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/5/02

Runaway Train
1985 (1998) - MGM/UA

review by Drew Feinberg of The Digital Bits

Runaway Train

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/D+

Specs and Features

112 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, 7-page booklet with production notes, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (32 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 2.0) subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Close Captioned

"You're stupid! You know how stupid you sound? Miracle my ass! One must count on oneself, nobody else. You think I'm waiting around for a miracle to happen? I ain't waitin' for a miracle! I'm going out..."

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 ("Who do I trust? Me, that's who!") attended. 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." It's funny how people like the warden have no sense of introspection; he perceives that his inmates are animals, but what exactly does that make him, especially after putting a botched hit on Manny? I have a suspicion that Renken would not have voted for Michael Dukakis; V.I. Lenin would be more up his alley. He and Manny have a personal mutual loathing of each other that borders on fanaticism, and I get the impression that at least part of Manny's desire for escape is to prove that he could, showing that Renken couldn't break him.

So escape Manny does, along with help from the dimwitted Buck (Eric Roberts). Together, they hop aboard what they think is the express train to freedom. Alas, the gods of irony strike Manny and Buck quickly, as the engineer drops dead and they wind up instead on a two-man ride towards a seemingly unavoidable and messy death. One has to pity Manny. For as much suffering as he 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 between Forrest Gump and Cletus (the slack-jawed yokel) on 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." In fact, when she professes to Manny that she "feels in her heart" a miracle is going to save them from impending doom, I cringed, waiting for Manny to inevitably unload the aforementioned verbal assault on her. Not that it wasn't deserved - don't get me wrong. To be honest, I was pretty much thinking the same thing myself; crossing one's fingers is probably not the most efficient way to get oneself off a runaway train going 80+ mph. When it comes down to the nitty gritty in the dodgeball game of life, you'd pick Manny to be on your team way before Sara.

Runaway Train is worlds better than your standard action flick, because it has so many elements that rise above your standard, run of the mill action fare. First off, Andrei Konchalovsky's direction is top-notch - he truly succeeds in making a nail biter of a movie. There are some great external shots of the train that are awe-inspiring, and make me long for the days when the blue screen wasn't used as much. The film is also based on a heretofore-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. This doesn't feel like movie stars with schmutz on their faces playing prisoners.

And then, of course, there's Jon Voight, who acts his heart out in this one. He gives us one of the best performances of his career and earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for it. It would have been very easy for Manny be a flat character in the hands of a lesser actor, but Voight makes Manny both a frightening and sympathetic character, a difficult tightrope to walk. The other standout performance is John P. Ryan, who is just a hair less tough than Voight, and is the perfect adversary. This movie could not have worked if we didn't truly loathe the warden, which helps us understand Manny's motivations.

The DVD is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen 1:85:1 (well, it's also in 1:33:1 pan and scan, but why on earth would a person ever watch this flick like that?). All in all, the picture is not very spectacular, although it could certainly be called decent. The disc has some grain present, but hey - it's supposed to be a dark and gritty looking movie. I can't really take away points for that. There are a few artifacts here and there, but considering that the film takes place mostly in snowy scenes, it really doesn't take away from the viewing experience. This was a DVD released in 1998, so a little slack has to be cut. With that in mind, while it's not a DVD to be used as a showpiece, it's a functional view nonetheless.

The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, and although 5.1 would have been a real treat, this is a very good mix. It's clean and distortion-free, and the train scenes use the surrounds effectively. The score occasionally sounds a bit too much like a bad Miami Vice rip-off for my tastes, but on the technical side, it's presented well and is suitably enveloping.

Don't expect a treasure trove of extras; this is one of those MGM bargain basement deals. The only feature is a trailer that has obviously not been cleaned up at all. The menus have animated snow, which is a cute touch and is appropriate considering how cold and bleak the movie is. And when you make a menu selection, it gives the sound and illusion of a train coming right at you. "Eek!" I say. Last of all, there's a seven-page booklet with some pretty interesting facts about the production. For example, did you know that Jon Voight got the idea of wearing a Fu-Manchu mustache by watching Scared Straight? Don't feel bad. I didn't know either.

Drew Feinberg
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