While it isn’t wholly obvious because of where Runaway Train goes, the feature film based on a script from legendary director Akira Kurosawa tries to reflect this merit frequently. Andrei Konchalovsky does not direct his piece with that in mind but certainly considers it thoroughly. Welded into a cell and finally released, Oscar Manheim (Jon Voight) and his young, starry-eyed protégé, Buck (Eric Roberts), escape for the heist of a lifetime. But what are we to do with characters this crazed? They are chewing the scenery set before them and lingering all too often on the hypermasculinity and bromance between them. Animosity and tension, grease and sweat, it’s all there for Manheim and Buck, but what for?
Buck has value to Manheim. Voight displays that well, but also brings a level of twisted sanity too. He is not unstable, just incredibly angry at the world around him and the people who put him in this terrible predicament. Who can blame him? He has been in solitary for years, and finally free of this, finds himself tasked with an impossible heist. Voight brings out strong chemistry and a few entertaining scenes with Edward Bunker in the film’s first act. It brings out the humanity of each character, and despite their intensity and villainous characteristics, Runaway Train makes it clear that we should feel no ill about connecting with these characters.
But there are great scenes within. As the prison warden and the guard’s stride down the corridor, the ashes and fire of a recent riot around them, there is depth and dismay to the destruction at hand. There is value to it. Hypermasculinity controls where Konchalovsky takes his film, but that strengthens Runaway Train more than anything. It has brief tones of The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, where a team of track monitors watch this problem blow up in front of them. Brief may not be the word for it, in fact, Runaway Train borrows tremendously from the Walther Matthau classic. All it needs is a stronger cast and an aim for these criminals beyond the trailblazing train journey. Buck is like an action-packed version of Bill Bryson. Such a change would surely liven up Notes from a Small Island.
It is a shame Bryson does not feature in a leading role here. Roberts leaves much to be desired with his performance. His cries and excitement do not feel genuine or even that interesting. He scurries around the screen in a role that could be filled by any of the many young heartthrobs of the time. Still, there are times where you can see the sparks fly between Voight and Roberts. Those moments are worth waiting for. They are the special moments that we should treasure. Runaway Train has its exceptional moments, and they are filtered through with well-paced, reasonable breaks from Konchalovsky and his simplistic yet effective direction. That is all we can ask for with the action genre, and while it doesn’t break the mould with incredible confidence, it does enough to cement itself as quite the experience.