This review was first written for French Toast Sunday.
Oscar Manheim (Jon Voight) is a convicted killer and bank robber, whose multiple escape attempts and generally uncouth disposition have rewarded him with three years of solitary confinement in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison, during which he was welded into his cell. However, a court ordered has decreed that Manheim be released back into the prison’s general population, where the man is something of a hero. Of course, once he’s out of his cell he makes another escape attempt, during which he’s joined by Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts), a loyal but simple fellow inmate whose laundry job provides a perfect means of escape. Once on the run in the freezing Alaskan wilderness, the two end up on a train that’s out of control, and they may be the only ones that can stop it.First things first, this ain’t Unstoppable. That film was just a series of set pieces and small explosions tied around a loose conceit of a runaway train, with little-to-no character development or actual characters anywhere to be found. It isn’t a terrible film, but it shouldn’t be viewed as anything other than what it is – a standard, by-the-numbers time-filling action film. Runaway Train, on the other hand, may have gone too far in the other direction. It has aspirations of greatness, but not within the action genre; instead this sees itself as more of a dramatic thriller, which just happens to see two escaped convicts fighting for their lives against a train with an open throttle and no brakes. As such there’s fewer big action moments than I was both hoping for and expecting, but this was more than made up for by the character insights in between the scenes that were present. It does, however, end on a bum note when the climax, which the entire film has been literally building up to, is cut just before it occurs, which is undeniably disappointing and marred my overall experience.The acting from the two leads is impressive, and in fact both were nominated for academy awards for their work here, despite Roberts’ accent taking a tour of the southern states as Voight seemingly preparing for his scenery-chewing role in Anaconda. There’s a scene about halfway through, in which Manheim explains to Buck about the difficulties an escaped convict can look forward to on the outside, that is nothing short of mesmerizing. Roberts does begin to grate after a while, but Buck’s adrenaline-charged excitement is at least realistic of the character and situation. Elsewhere, the scenes involving the train dispatchers attempting to handle the situation from their office are also great, even if the characters are a little thinly drawn.The scenery the train rockets past is stunning, breathtakingly beautiful. Be it the snow-covered mountains, dense woodlands or the caribou wading across an icy lake, this train paints Alaska as an idyllic place to visit, if it weren’t so damn cold. This contrasts sharply with the harshness of the prison scenes – which feature blazing riots, grimy cliving conditions and at one point a man cradling his own intestines. Fortunately, the gore quotient is severely reduced after the escape attempt, so if you can handle that, then consider the picturesque scenery as something of a reward. To keep you distracted during the prison scenes, be sure to look out for screen debuts of both Danny Trejo and Tiny Lister.Overall it’s an enjoyable film, and I’m not just saying that because prison escape or heist films are amongst my favorite sub-genres. The plot is at times a little contrived – in order for the criminals to be alone on the train, the conductor has a heart attack and falls off, but not before he disengages the automatic stop by burning the brakes out – there’s a typically Hollywood questionable grasp on physics and the synth score is almost as dated as the computers used by the dispatchers, but once you get past those small issues you’re left with a film that is really hard not to like.
Choose Film 7/10