(1998) - MGM/UA
by Drew Feinberg of The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras):
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,
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.