Saturday, 28 February 2015

Going Off the Rails on a Crazy Train

Have you ever wondered what Unstoppable might have looked like if it was made in the 1980's? No? Well, too bad, because someone made it. Just replace engineers Chris Pine and Denzel Washington with convicts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, yardmaster Rosario Dawson with Kyle T. Heffner and T.K. Carter, and Kevin Dunn with Kenneth McMillan. Now throw in Rebecca De Mornay for added good measure, with a character who displays a promising introduction but ends up being underused and a random quote from Shakespeare at the end. What you now have is the plot for Andrey Konchalovskiy's 1985 disaster film Runaway Train.

Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Voight) is a convict in Alaska facing conditions that have aroused some curiosity. He is such a dangerous criminal that prison warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) has literally kept him welded into his cell for the past three years. After Ranken is ordered to stop treating Manny so inhumanely, he is released (somehow) and allowed to interact with other prisoners. Unfortunately, Ranken is so fed up with Manny that he wants to kill him, pulling dirty tricks like hiring inmates to provoke him so that the guards will have justification for using lethal force. Manny gets so frustrated he decides to escape, and reluctantly enlists the help of inmate Buck McGeehy to do so.

The plan goes off successfully, and both prisoners manage to escape undetected. After spending some time hiking through the freezing environment outside, they stumble across a railyard and sneak into a train consisting of four locomotives hoping to get to freedom. Unfortunately, the Engineer has a heart attack within moments of starting the train and dies, causing it to drive out of the yard with increasing speed. It also turns out that apparently a female railway worker, Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) had decided to take a nap in the train for some reason and she tries to help out. Meanwhile her misogynistic superiors Frank (Kyle T. Heffner), Dave (T.K. Carter), and Eddie (Kenneth McMillan) bicker about how to resolve the situation while their secretary Ruby (Stacy Pickren) stands around looking pretty and occasionally reacting to updates in the plot.

Runaway Train appears to be a product of the cycle of big-budget disaster movies that emerged in the 70's with such wonderful classics as Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno. While Runaway Train is definitely one of the better films of that cycle, it is still greatly flawed. There is some solid action in this one, and unlike The Towering Inferno one doesn't have to wait a whole hour just to see some of it. While the movie does take its time building up to the action, that actually does allow the viewer some time to get acquainted with the characters. Manny is actually somewhat likeable at times, and his partner Buck has his moments, although he can also be somewhat irritating as well.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Sara. Once she (finally) makes an appearance, literally an hour in, she starts off with a very promising introduction. We see her character in action on the train, performing stunts (even rescuing herself after nearly falling off the train), displaying self-reliance as she tries to figure out how to respond to the situation. When she finally meets the two convicts, she maintains a professional attitude that makes her seem like she could potentially be a strong character. Sadly, the movie fails to deliver on this front. While Sara is given a promising start, she quickly descends into adopting stereotypically "feminine" behavior, spending much of the film having to be comforted by the men and taking a sideline role even though she should know far more than either of the two men on board about how to deal with the problem.

"Why am I in this movie again?"

Outside of initially allowing the train to slow down, she doesn't even add much to the story. While I don't know if I would call the film outright sexist, seeing as it appears to have at least attempted to include a strong female lead, but there are definitely some concerns to be raised about its treatment of women. I personally would have wanted to see Sara take more of an active role in the story, maybe even participate in the action, but in the end it was mostly her sitting in the train with the two guys and them having to comfort her. The fact that Frank, a character we are apparently supposed to sympathize with, utters a lot of sexist remarks after finding out she is on board doesn't help.

However, it gets worse when we look at the only other major female character, Ruby. They at least tried to do something worthwhile with Sara (even if they failed miserably). With Ruby, there isn't even an unsuccessful attempt to give her character depth. Her role in the entire movie consists of standing around the Dave and Frank's office while looking pretty. They're not even subtle about it: her first appearance has her refusing to answer the phone because she's putting makeup on herself. It almost makes you wonder why she is even employed at the office to begin with, considering she seems to contribute nothing useful to the men. The only thing she is asked to do is to answer the phone (which she doesn't)... because the guy sitting right next to it is busy looking at nude pictures in a porn magazine.

Looking at Runaway Train in the context of the 1980's, it's not hard to see its influence on later directors like Tony Scott, who probably drew a lot from here when making Unstoppable (though both also owe something to the train-chase films of the silent era). There are many parallels of note, particularly evident in the scenes with Dave and Frank, the execution of which calls to mind Connie Hooper's persistence (only now with 80's computers) and her constant feuding with Galvin. Even the basic structure is in many ways very much the same outside of a slightly different setup and a few specific details. Still, Unstoppable is definitely the better of the two. It's funny how good movies often prove to be far better than the work that obviously inspired the people behind them.

Runaway Train is okay. As an action film it works insofar as it has some likable characters and moves at a decent enough pace to keep you invested in what's happening, but there are a lot of problems. It is certainly not the movie to look at if you want a strong female lead (though it might be a good lesson in what not to do when writing one), and it starts to get a bit confusing towards the end. For a better update on the train chase film you're far better just watching Tony Scott's Unstoppable, which actually does have a strong female lead and a more compelling story. That said, if you really must watch a film from the big budget disaster movie cycle of the 70's and 80's, there are far worse. Maybe I should just be glad they had the sense not to put Irwin Allen in charge of this one.


  1. I remember when this came out and it got some great reviews. I finally saw it and was totally under-whelmed. I felt like the beginning of the film with the convicts didn't work with the train. I found Eric Roberts irritating and had no idea why he was heralded as a great actor and the women...I wanted to throw Ruby off the train...she was like a younger version of the Carol Burnett role on her TV Show (Mrs. Whiggens). I would rather watch The Towering Inferno because it is so campy

    1. I guess I can see how you'd feel that way. Perhaps it would have worked better if it had instead been one of several different plot threads, and the first act had instead cut between that, introducing the characters, some scenes in the railyard which could have introduced the train and allowed us to get to know Sara with some indications of the Engineer having some health issues in order to build up to his heart attack.