Who’d have thought it? A film containing the words “starring” and “Eric Roberts” that doesn’t suck like a… well, like an Eric Roberts movie.
Rare also is a full-on, all-out, no-holds-barred action picture that can be described as existential.
Yet Andrei Konchalovsky’s extraordinary Runaway Train ticks both boxes, with a subtle and driven performance from Mr Roberts and a storyline that not only has a monstrous locomotive roaring uncontrolled through the Alaskan wilderness, but also manages to find time to question man’s place in the larger scheme of things.
The plot, based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, is as streamlined as it gets. Two convicts escape from a maximum security prison in Alaska and board a runaway train. And that’s pretty much it.
Jon Voight plays Manny, a tough-as-nails career criminal who is on the vicious warden’s death list, and Roberts plays Buck, the young inmate who helps him to escape. Together they survive freezing rivers and police hunts, before embarking on their fateful rail journey.
Even though both actors were nominated for Oscars (losing out to William Hurt and Don Ameche), it would be wrong to think of this film as anything other than Jon Voight’s movie.
Previously he had been the naive rent-boy in Midnight Cowboy, the naïve city-boy in Deliverance, the naïve investigative reporter in The Odessa File.
Here he finds his true calling a mutilated monstrous beast, as jagged, warped, torn, out-of-control and dangerous as the locomotive he is escaping on.
Starting with a brutal boxing match in the isolated, snowbound prison and concluding with a truly remarkable image of man railing hopelessly against nature itself, Voight sneers, snarls and savages his way through the picture. Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay (as a plucky train engineer) are literally dragged along for the ride, witnesses to his collision with legend and myth.
As the speed increases and both passengers and pursuers get more and more desperate, one question remains: is the runaway train taking them to freedom or to death?