Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
In Runaway Train two convicts escape from prison and share the misfortune of hitching a ride on a train with no conductor. For Manny (Jon Voight) this is hardly his first escape attempt, instead just the most recent prison break into which he knows he was goaded by the prison warden, Ranken (John P. Ryan). With him, at the last minute, comes a younger, wild card of an inmate named Buck (Eric Roberts).
Manny is similar to the Paul Newman character in Cool Hand Luke, a convict with a constant duel with the warden whose plight becomes the stuff of legend. He’s larger than life, and his endless conflict with the warden is like the Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. It’s so ripe before the movie even begins that it doesn’t much matter what produced such conflict, just that it exists.
Like with the unspoken subtext of other relationships between hero and villain we get the sense that it’s their shared opposition which gives them any meaning at all. Without the other they themselves could not exist.
So it’s that conflict which bookends the film, while the middle deals with the very immediate and visceral challenge of navigating a speeding, out of control train through one obstacle after another.
The film works simply because it’s so tense and exciting. There’s the ticking clock, a neat and tidy structure of escalating obstacles and then the characters just happen to feel so fully realized. They remain a bit broad, but the interaction between the two convicts as well as a later discovered rail employee becomes loaded with philosophical what ifs.
She prays to God to help them out while Manny insists no one will help them but themselves. To make his point he sends Buck, who has idolized him throughout this entire journey, on a near suicidal mission that might save their lives. He will do what it takes partially to survive but mostly just to stick it to his God, the warden.
So even when the film doesn’t focus on the train racing down the tracks, there is plenty to explore in the conversation between these three figures. It’s a philosophy lecture under duress, I suppose.
So the whole thing is engaging, with the expected thrills and inherent drama of an escape movie, let alone a runaway train movie, but there’s more to draw from beyond just the adrenaline rush.
Up Next: The Castle (1997), Frankie (2019), The King (2019)