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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Runaway Train: Limited Edition (Blu-ray)
Runaway Train: Limited Edition (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // R // October 18, 2016 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted October 28, 2016 | E-mail the Author

Conceived by Akira Kurosawa, rewritten by an ex-convict, directed by a celebrated Russian filmmaker, and populated by a largely American cast---two of which received Oscar nominations---Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train (1985) is a strange, ugly, thrilling, beast of a film. It's both an attempted character study and a white-knuckle thriller, expertly shot and edited for maximum suspense, all wrapped up in a scrappy, B-movie bow that makes it easy to appreciate and fun to watch. Yet Runaway Train is also comically uneven at times with a few shaky supporting performances, one-note characters, and baffling plot holes that threaten to derail the entire production.

Thankfully, they don't. It's largely thanks to Runaway Train's outstanding production design and effective atmosphere, which at no point make you doubt you're riding alongside escaped convicts Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) and Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts, Star 80) on a train uncontrollably throttling across icy Alaskan landscapes. They got there after breaking out of nearby Stonehaven Prison through a sewer, changing outfits, and well, picking the wrong train: the engineer abandoned ship after a heart attack less than five miles into their journey...so it's up to Manny, Buck, and unwitting railway employee Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) to make their way to the lead locomotive and turn it off. Hot on their heels is dastardly Stonehaven Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who's reluctantly working with dispatchers Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) and Dave Prince (T.K. Carter) to bring the convicts to justice.

It's a wild ride (again, mostly due to those tense action sequences punctuated by blizzard-like conditions) that makes Runaway Train feel like a distant cousin of films like Sorcerer, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and Emperor of the North. Yet it's also a frustrating and uneven one at times, as Manny and Buck are both largely unlikable characters that don't undergo any real change during the life-threatening ride (nor does Sara, who's given so little to do that she may as well not even be there). It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between bad acting and bad characters; with these three (and several others), it's definitely the latter. Supporting characters like Barstow and Prince are both: the uninspired dispatch scenes look authentic but run on fumes, only given a jolt of energy when the Warden roars to mustache-twirling life. Of course, the film's closing statement is that Manny and Ranken represent two different breeds of the same beast...but Runaway Train is more about the journey, not the destination.

This combination of urgent realism, one-note characters, and an almost unbearable sense of machismo gives Runaway Train a disjointed and baffling flow during certain stretches, yet the film's rabid urgency has no problems pushing everything full-steam ahead. It's still very much an enjoyable trip and one that's worth returning to often (unlike most action-oriented films, it plays better the more you watch it)...and any production that launched the careers of Danny Trejo and Tommy "Tiny" Lister (both in small roles at the prison) is worth a second look.

Originally released on DVD back in 1998 (as a non-anamorphic/pan-and-scan flipper disc, naturally), Runaway Train was finally given a much-needed Blu-ray upgrade by UK-based Arrow Films in 2013; unfortunately, it was region-locked and has since gone out-of-print, often selling for $60 or more on the secondary market. Luckily, Twilight Time---who owns the North American distribution rights---has seen fit to resurrect Runaway Train on Blu-ray; as always, it's limited to 3,000 units and region-free. Featuring a fantastic A/V presentation and a few modest but entertaining bonus features, it's a solid package for this uniquely thrilling slice of 1980s action and adventure.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this outstanding 1080p transfer of Runaway Train looks even better than expected...and though I don't have Arrow's 2013 Region B Blu-ray on hand for a direct comparison, it's safe to say this is solid treatment of source material that's obviously been treated with care. Image detail and textures are quite good with noticeable depth, good color saturation, and excellent contrast levels that really heighten the film's atmosphere. Film grain is neither excessive nor smoothed over, giving the picture a natural appearance that exceeded expectations. No flagrant digital issues (excessive DNR, edge enhancement, compression artifacts, etc.) could be spotted along the way. Overall, this is the best that Runaway Train has ever looked on a domestic home video release, and I'd imagine that die-hard fans will be extremely pleased with the results of this long-overdue upgrade.

DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.

The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 format and sounds much better than anything we got on DVD. Dialogue and depth are typically strong with a surprising amount of punch for the score and action sequences. Channel separation is also quite good, giving many moments a certain width and dynamic boost that helps draw viewers in a little further. There's also a solid amount of low end at times; it almost borders on overcooked, but perhaps that's just because I was so familiar with the relatively flat-sounding DVD mix. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature, as well as a lossless 2.0 Isolated Score Track that highlights Trevor Jones' music.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The interface is plain but perfectly functional, with quick loading time and the bare minimum of pre-menu distractions. This one-disc release is packaged in a clear keepcase with two-sided artwork and a Booklet featuring production stills, vintage promotional artwork, and the usual essay penned by Twilight Time regular Julie Kirgo.

Bonus Features

Not a lot, unfortunately, but what's here is of good quality. The main attraction is an exclusive Audio Commentary with actor Eric Roberts, who's joined by film historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner. It's an enjoyable track from start to finish; topics include shooting in Montana Alaska, the casting process, rewriting Kurosawa's original screenplay (which was trimmed from 300+ pages to 98), giving Danny Trejo and "Tiny" Lister their first real shots at acting, Jon Voight's bodysuit, Cannon Films, train safety, Rebecca De Mornay's rough first day on the set, cameos and Easter eggs, stunt work, "Moby Diesel", and much more. Other than that, we also get the usual Isolated Score Track (especially welcome this time around, as Trevor Jones' music is fantastic) and the film's Theatrical Trailer.

Final Thoughts

Several years ahead of its time, Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train is a grounded, white-knuckle thrill ride that's saddled with a few speed bumps along the way. It's largely well-acted but the characters aren't anything special...and you probably won't care too much, because the potent and kinetic action scenes are still a joy to witness 30+ years later. It's the kind of film that, even with a few glaring faults, is still a blast to watch under the right circumstances, and Runaway Train's outstanding atmosphere and production design are even more convincing in high definition. Twilight Time's disc will relieve fans stuck with the (almost 20 year-old) DVD; specifically, those who never got around to importing Arrow's out-of-print 2013 Blu-ray. Featuring a top-tier A/V presentation and a few modest but enjoyable extras, Runaway Train is firmly Recommended to die-hard fans and newcomers alike.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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