Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at one of Cannon’s finest, Runaway Train…
If you’re not familiar with the output of a certain iconic independent studio that were prolific in the 80’s, then chances are, of a certain age you probably saw or heard about a number of their films. It might be Masters of The Universe, or Superman IV: The Quest for Toilet (known as The Quest for Peace in some territories).
If you are familiar with the studio then the hazy memory of their logo appearing before your inputted VHS film began, would warm the cockles (or bring about a groaning fear, dependant on your standpoint). They were renowned initially for skin flicks and low rent horror before ploughing more and more money into producing and distributing large numbers of genre films (especially action). Suddenly Messrs Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus were utterly prolific, upsetting a few apple carts along the way. Fans lapped up films like American Ninja, Lifeforce, Ninja 3: The Domination, King Solomon’s Mines and more (and if not in cinemas, certainly video). Still, something was lacking, in those early days in particular…critical acclaim (acceptance).
This led to Golan and Globus, as well as continuing to pay handsomely for big name actors (Sly Stallone was a big deal for Cobra and Over The Top), looking to procure the talents of well known arthouse directors in the search for a little more creative respect. The experiment, like all their experiments, yielded mixed results. Most infamously they got John Cassavetes and Jean Luc-Godard (you know, only one of THE most influential directors of all time). Cassavetes made Love Streams which fit in nicely with his Oeuvre and received rave reviews (and Won the Golden Bear in Berlin). It probably still remains Cannons crowning achievement, though ironically among the Cannonites, something either forgotten entirely, or never seen (because a Cannon aficionado, myself included, was more drawn to Ninjas, Space Vampires or boobs).
This brings us tidily to a film called Runaway Train. A film that Akira Kurosawa had written and planned to shoot some 20 years prior, but never managed to produce, was brought back to life by Cannon. Whilst they didn’t bring Kurosawa on board, they did bring a Russian arthouse director named Andrei Konchalovskiy. Konchalovsky began his career working alongside a friend you may have heard passing mention of, Andrei Tarkovsky. Having worked with Tarkovsky, before developing his own directorial career (and whilst one of Russian cinemas icons, undoubtedly, like all but Eisenstein) lived in Tarkovsky’s shadow. Konchalovskiy had already made Maria’s Lovers for Cannon (his English language debut) and would later make Duet For One and Shy People. The others were more in line with his own work. Runaway Train felt like a happy medium between the aspirational Cannon and the ‘genre’ loving Cannon.
Runaway Train is almost as simple as the title suggests. Two escaped convicts abscond on a train which then ends up out of control. Like Mad Max say, the simplicity of concept is part of the films great success. It’s lithe, it’s efficient and it, without much baggage, has breakneck pace. Without disrespect too, with someone like Konchalovskiy on board, over some of the genre stalwarts that Cannon often worked with (such as Sam Firstenberg, or a past prime J Lee Thompson), Runaway Train was imbued with more subtle human drama than the conceit may have allowed most.
The principal cast, Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay are all superb. Voight and Roberts would both receive Oscar nominations, and didn’t Golan and Globus love that! Roberts effectively, after a bright career opening which included Golden Globe recognition in The King of The Gypsies and Star 80 (where he’s astonishingly good), hit a brick wall. Runaway Train seemed a blessing and a curse and several poor choices and some diva-ish behaviour beyond, he was relegated to video specials by the end of the decade. Likewise, not to be outshone entirely, genre stalwart and Cannon badguy extraordinaire, John P.Ryan is also brilliant as the Warden in pursuit.
Whilst the director had come from a background of predominant human drama, that lack of an ‘action specialist’ didn’t affect the action. The train sequences are still thrilling. It’s with great amazement with the humble train sequence that they can be made so thrillingly. Lets face it, it’s a track, there’s only one direction you can take things and you can’t derail the choo-choo too early. Still, the visceral, palm sweaty brilliance of the action can’t be underestimated.
To this day, as if by Hollywood conspiracy (such was the antipathy to Cannon, who were akin to Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack), like a lot of Cannons crowning achievements, the film is somewhat, disappointingly forgotten. This isn’t to the same degree as something like the criminally overlooked Barfly for example, because Runaway Train remains one of the groups most widely known, but in terms of the great action films of the 80’s, this rarely (unfairly) gets mentioned. The gripping set pieces and the immediacy of the drama, helmed with proper directorial craft, anchored with exceptional performances, make this an essential piece of cinema.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020, including Cyber Bride and Scarecrow’s Revenge both available on Prime. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.