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The good thing about much-respected and prodigious artists is that they tend to have done a lot of work that most of their fans may not have known about. Take Kurosawa for instance. He wrote a screenplay which he intended to direct after his 1965 film Red Beard, and was intended to be his first color film before financial backing fell through. He didn't get to make a color film for five years, but the screenplay he wrote was proverbially tucked into a drawer for a while and didn't pop up for years, until it became 1985's Runaway Train.
Kurosawa's screenplay was adapted for a North American audience by several, including Edward Bunker, Mr. Blue from Reservoir Dogs. Manny (Jon Voight, Heat) has been released into general population of a maximum security prison in Alaska. The inmates love him and the warden (John P. Ryan, Hoffa) knows this, to the point of employing some extreme measures to try and contain him. Manny and a younger, brash inmate Buck (Eric Roberts, Inherent Vice) eventually escape from the prison and the unrelenting Alaska weather, and hop a train with an engineer (Rebecca De Mornay, Wedding Crashers), which eventually becomes a musing on life, death, freedom, and the like.
There are a couple of things within the story that are admirable, the first being the adeptness in the screenplay to get Manny and Buck on the train. Manny's reputation is given enough time leading up to the escape, and we see the type of person Buck is as well. The oil and water personalities get thrown into this cramped space and dialogue and conflict are bound to come out of it and it does, but not some of the dialogue you'd expect. Once the initial chestiness between both people is worked out, we see Manny transition into more of a father figure for Buck to show him what life and people are like. And this dynamic focuses exclusively on Manny and Buck. When Sara is introduced in the second act, she sees Manny for what he is to Buck and is easily skeptical of him. Her conflict is not with both of them but Manny exclusively and it works very well.
Enhancing this are the performances of the three actors. De Mornay conveys frailty and strength well, and Roberts playing the loudmouth was a marvelous choice. You see his vulnerability eventually come out. As for Voight, there is a sense of resignation to his fate long before he even considers taking a train in his escape. He finds himself without any semblance of salvation until the very end of the movie, and he changes from hardened, violent felon to sage wisdom dispenser to lost and eventually found soul over the course of 110 minutes and it's something to experience.
Even if the nuances in the primary story may not be caught they are replicated to an extent in the secondary. The warden goes to the rail management center and confronts the young dispatcher Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner, When Harry Met Sally) and ‘encourages' him to do the right thing. Combined with Barstow's manager Eddie (Kenneth McMillan, Dune), seeing Barstow's preconceived impressions crumble and make a decision he was reluctant to do is subtle and fascinating.
It's remarkable to also note that Runaway Train was a Golan-Globus production. The primarily 1980s production house was willing to make just about every screenplay under the sun, most of them didn't work. Strange that a Kurosawa story that wasn't made for financial reasons would be made by this bunch, but seeing it realized, and in the work this ensemble does, makes me glad to see it and appreciate it through the years.The Disc:
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, there's little denying this transfer of Runaway Train looks great. I remember watching the film a lot growing up and seem to remember it being a dark film in terms of lighting. Presumably mastered from the recent Blu-ray release, the colors and lighting are much more natural, film grain is ample through the film and edge enhancement is virtually nil. The film looks like it was meant to look and won't look much better.The Sound:
You get a two-channel stereo track which is fine, especially considering that the Blu-ray only had a two-channel track as well. Dialogue is consistent through the film and the sound effects are robust, or as much as could be on a stereo track. It sounds about as good as could be expected given the source material.Extras:
Trailers to other Kino releases and…that's it. So if you wanted the commentary or isolated score tracks, go get the Twilight Time release.Final Thoughts:
I'm not sure about this but I think Runaway Train may have slipped under the radar for some time; just on the periphery for critical acclaim, but nobody saw it, and its DVD/Blu-ray treatment, or lack thereof until recently did it no favors. But now that Twilight Time/Kino are breathing life into gems like this, it's really worth checking out. The transfer is solid and sound is fine, though the lack of extras are disappointing. Definitely see it and if you buy it, lean towards the Blu-ray if you can find it.