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Runaway Train

Kino // R // March 16, 2021
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted March 4, 2021 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
It's a shame that Runaway Train, a deft and rough-around-the-edges character study about the inevitability of man's fight against his own nature wrapped around a nail-biting action thriller, got lost in the shuffle amongst its studio's regular fare of exploitation. The Cannon Group was legendary for their output of shameless schlock, which later made them a magnet for lovers of 80s cheese and trash. Check out the terrific doc, Electric Boogaloo, about their rise and fall.

So when a legitimately great and prestigious piece of 70s style gruff filmmaking fell on their laps, they didn't have the budget or the experience to push for awards recognition. Runaway Train still got away with three Oscar nominations, but its fearless execution and bold approach to its deeply flawed characters deserved more. Thankfully, it gained quite a cult following over the years by cinephiles and Kino's new blu-ray is bound to put a smile on fans' faces.

The script for Runaway Train, about two inmates (Eric Roberts and Jon Voight) who escape from a Siberian-gulag-like prison in Alaska only to be trapped on a train that can't be stopped and keeps getting faster, was first developed by Akira Kurosawa, who couldn't shoot it in the 70s due to the insane weather requirements of the project. Kurosawa always used the external conflict of nature's adversarial relationship with men not as an easy conduit for action spectacle, but as an excuse to dig deep into the souls of his characters. Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy, who came from a background of deeply personal dramas, took the ball from Kurosawa and detailed a fable of this inner struggle through the film's high concept plot machinations.

Roberts' Buck is a young idealist with dreams of making it big for himself once he reaches freedom, while Voight's Manny is a seasoned criminal who's still somehow standing tall after the system chewed him up and spat him out. Manny knows that no such dream awaits Buck's future and that his prospects might be grimmer than prison itself -as expressed in a stunningly powerful monologue midway through the film-. As Buck faces the scepter of death as the duo is trapped inside a train that's bound to kill them both, he begins to realize that he might not be as much in control of his fate as he once felt. Yet the touching and rousing climax finds a way to flip the key to this fable in a way that feels operatic and pragmatic at the same time.

If you're looking for a plot and set-piece heavy version of the same premise, watch Tony Scott's swan song, 2010's Unstoppable. The core of Runaway Train's appeal lies in its character studies, supported heavily by terrific performances by Voight and Roberts. That being said, the pre-CGI aerial footage of the train hurtling towards oblivion through mountains of snow and cold desolation creates some of the most stunning natural action material since Sorcerer, William Friendkin's Wages of Fear remake.

The Blu-ray:
Video:
Kino's 1080p transfer is sourced from a new 2K restoration of Runaway Train. This is a film that's bathed in muted grays and whites, so brightening its palette for an uptick in clarity would have been the wrong move. In that case, the video presentation perfectly captures the drab and cold feel of the cinematography. The output is clear and crisp, with barely any scratches or blemishes.

Audio:
Considering the many roaring train sound effects and the kinetic nature of the handful of action set-pieces -including a spectacular stunt around a helicopter landing on the train-, a 5.1 remix could have been beneficial. But the original 2.0 mix is represented with a significant range through the DTS-HD track on offer.

Extras:
Audio Commentary with Co-Star Eric Roberts, and Film Historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner: Roberts showcases an impressive memory as he's able to give an insane amount of day-to-day production details to the film historians in this very informative commentary.
Trailers From Hell: The Outpost director Rod Lurie gives us a quick history lesson on the film as part of a commentary on its trailer.
We also get the Trailer sans commentary.

Final Thoughts:
Even though it was produced in the 80s, Runaway Train is one of the last hurrahs of bold, brave, and rough American filmmaking from the 70s, incidentally made by a studio that lavished itself in 80s superficial cheese. The gorgeously muted transfer from Kino does the film justice.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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