Until last night it must have been over ten years since I’d watched Runaway Train and I wasn’t even remembering it right because I thought it was Charles Bronson in it but it’s Jon Voight. And I didn’t remember all the prison scenes at the start either. But what did stay in my mind all that time was the shots of the train blasting through the snow.
Here’s what really works in this film:
1. shots of the train blasting through the snow
The four locos teamed together, muddy-black in colour. The long shots show the desolate Alaskan winter and the driving snow emphasises the speed of the train. This is what cinematography is all about to me; showing something in pictures that can’t be described in dialogue or words of any kind.
2. The basic elements of the plot
Apparently this was a story and screenplay originally written by Akira Kurasawa. It was later adapted by the people who put together this film but there’s something about the way the main elements of the story hang together that have Kurasawa’s name all over them. I actually don’t know that much about him—I’ve only seen a couple of his B&W 50s(?) samurai films but there’s a simple way of story-telling though visuals he got down that others have been influenced by for decades.
The reason I can tell it’s not pure Kurasawa is the way it jumps from the scenes in the train what Voight kills, and the scenes in the train line control room. It’s like going from a quality drama to Flying High! Who ever was casting or directing, in these bits at least, really dropped the ball.
3. Jon Voight.
He probably did the only good acting in the film. Even then I wonder if the way he did the character might have been influenced by the way Stallone played the character Rocky Balboa. There was a couple of short monologish scenes that he nailed to the point where if this was a more popular movie then people would be parroting them the way they do De Niro in Taxi Driver.
Honourable mentions for cool things are – The actor and character that played the head prison warden. Every crazy, deathwish-seeking escaped convict needs an equally crazy sheriff hell-bent on bringing him down.
In both of these characters I can see an archetypal simplicity that Kurasawa would’ve outlined that made them so easy or successful to play.
And the on-train stunts and cinematography of the stunts. Hyper-real in how they look and the angles at which they were captured at. No CGI. The way heavy-falling snow combined with the speed of the train creates a darkening of the shot. Plus everyone knows how slippery ice is and everyone can guess how slippery it would be when trying to climb onto the nose of an EMD F7 at 70 miles an hour.
Because of the ‘80s schlock of the control room I’d almost say that this was a film ripe for re-doing but I know they’d never get the good parts right. No one in the two thousand teens wants to see a train barrelling through the snow, right? We’ve got too much ADD for that. No one wants to see relationships and motivations unfolding inside a boring, boxy black locomotive’s interior. So I can live with the bits that are a bit quaint because I know that Hollywood today would red rubber-stamp the whole thing ‘QUAINT’ including the live action stunts and the symbolism of an out of control train carrying a rebel on his last flight.