A fourth review requested by Andrew Johnson, with thanks for his many contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

One would think that an action picture from Cannon Films titled Runaway Train would be a certain thing, and and one would be wrong as hell. Even going into the film armed with certain knowledge, like the fact that it snagged two acting Oscar nominations and managed to secure a competition slot at Cannes in 1986 (the film played Stateside in '85), I refused to assume that a Cannon Films production, titled, I hasten to remind you, Runaway Train, and with Eric Roberts in the second-largest role, could possibly be an actual film with actual artistry. Its director, Andrei Konchalovsky, was only four years from his date with Tango & Cash, for God's sake. And then, during the opening credits - which appear overlaid on a blood red rotoscoped train against black, all like some beastly locomotive from out of Hell - comes the title card "Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa", separated by only one credit from the card reading "Produced by Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus". The human mind is not equipped to deal with such whiplash.

But it's easy to forget that, when they weren't finding new ways to put ninjas and Chuck Norris in the same movie, the Go-Go boys had some major art movie aspirations - these were the same gutter-scraping action & exploitation hucksters who gave Jean-Luc Godard the keys to make his inscrutable 1987 King Lear, after all, and made more trips to Cannes than just this one (and Runaway Train wasn't even their only film in competition that year). So on the face of it, there's no reason at all why it should be odd that they'd resurrect a script that Kurosawa had failed to get financed in the 1960s as a burly, brainy action-philosophy thriller (the new draft was by Djordje Milicevic & Paul Zinde & Edward Bunker). Maybe it's not even odd that it turns out to be tremendously good, certainly in the top range of Cannon releases. But I maintain it's odd as hell that Eric Roberts would turn out to be pretty fantastic, not just earning that Oscar nomination but even putting in a good claim to being the best candidate in his field.

Initially, the Kurosawa influence is much more obvious than the Cannon house style. Runaway Train is, at heart, a study of what happens to men who are treated like savage animals: they become the thing they are feared to be. So it is with Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight), the star prisoner of Stonehaven Prison in the bleakest ass-end of Alaska. A particularly ill-tempered bank robber, Manny has been an iconic hero to his fellow prisoners and nothing but a bother to the equally beastly Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who has responded to Manny's repeated escape attempts in the most draconian way possible, by welding his cell door shut. Humanitarian organisations have finally succeeding in forcing Ranken to allow Manny back into the prison population at large, but Ranken does not think this is at all wise - "Manheim is an animal" he informs a reporter early on, in a calm, even gentle tone of voice, like explaining to a little child why you don't touch poison ivy. He immediately starts to goad Manny and his brother Jonah (co-writer Bunker) into trying an escape, solely to punish them again, and it takes only very little goading: an attack orchestrated by Ranken leaves Manny with a knife through his now uselessly mangled left hand, and Jonah in the infirmary ward, and it becomes clear that if there's going to be a breakout, it needs to happen now. Reluctantly leaving Jonah behind, Manny partners with a statutory rapist, Buck McGeehy (Roberts), who works in the laundry room, and the two men are soon tearing ass across the wintry landscape until they find a trainyard, hopping in the fourth of four locomotive engines chained into one massive supply vehicle to hide. All goes right according to plan, until the train engineer (Reid Cruickshanks), moments after starting the first engine, suffers a heart attack and manages to knock levers just so, to keep the train moving with its brakes sufficiently engaged that it won't be able to speak to the kill switch designed to prevent exactly this situation from happening. I have no clue if this is plausible in even the remotest degree. The point is, we now have a runaway train with two clueless convicts on it and no cars to weigh down the four speeding engines. Which means that it can run away very, very fast.

From this point on - 34 minutes into a movie that comes a bit short of two hours - it's a straightforward survival scenario: how will these two men, and the hostler Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) that they eventually discover was sleeping in the train when it entered its doom spiral, stop it in time to avoid killing themselves, while also managing to stay away from Ranken's unsurprisingly manic attempt to track them down? But even here, it's not the tough, burly action film that would be easy to expect from all the available evidence. Those opening 34 minutes see to that: it's a perfect length to let us get a full sense of the escapees' current relationship while also planting just enough seeds so that we can imagine where they're headed. Manny is brutally pragmatic, his experiences that left him looking like hell also having burned up his desire to be romantic; Buck is all romance, as excited to be on a train with his idol as a middle school basketball player would be to wind up alone on a road trip with LeBron James. He's also pretty dim, where Manny is fiercely intelligent, and this starts to imply the ugly turns their working relationship will take, as the older man uses his influence and cunning to make the younger man his tool. And this relationship goes from troubling to greatly intense once Sara shows up, immediately determines where the power imbalance between the men lies, and sides with Buck.

The film's entire identity is a function of two things: Konchalovsky's lean directing, and the performances. The former is raw in ways that aren't totally unfamiliar from '80s action, though it is distinctly unpolished: the frequent use of handheld cameras to crane around inside the cramped compartments of the train are decidedly ugly in addition to being claustrophobic, ripping away whatever is left of the audience's hope to read this all as sentimental "criminals on the run" melodrama. Even the grand Alaskan-by-way-of-Montana snowscapes have a tendency to look dreary, dirty, and oppressive; it's impossible to film wide shots in those states and end up with zero beautiful landscapes, but Konchalovsky and cinematographer Alan Hume certainly don't give in without a fight. Only at the very end, as the film starts to drift from sinewy man-against-man psychological action cinema into a surprisingly well-earned elegiac register does the snow start to adopt a poetic feel; or rather, a Romantic poetic feel. The whole movie has its own kind of poetry, one more in line with the cropped prose of Hemingway or the vomitous directness of Bukowswki.

The actors, meanwhile, are in peak form: Roberts, as noted, gives the kind of performance I'd never have expected him to be capable of, drawling and casual in the line delivery, sleepy in the body language, and yet hard underneath all the signifiers of sloppiness. "That was a STATustory rape" he clarifies to Manny at one point, and between the way he's slumped into a wall, and the blurry and heavily emphasised pronunciation, and the fact that he's talking in a idle, bragging tone about raping a 15-year-old, it's a microcosm of everything relaxed and still dangerous about his work. As good as he is, though, Voight is better: it vies solely with Deliverance out of all the performances I've seen him give. It is roaring and violent, earning the film's regular verbal equations between himself and a beast - "No! - Worse! - Human!" he barks at Sara when she makes that point - but also plainly allowing us to understand that he was not inherently animalistic, and that not merely did he have to learn it, he still even now has to continuously play-act it and revise it. Animal behavior is a survival skill, not a personality trait, and it's the best thing about Runaway Train and Voight within it to explore how a man could come to commit himself to that behavior: what kind of already damaged person would think it was a good idea, what other damaged people would do to him to push him towards it.

The Voight/Roberts show is so good that it's quite deflating whenever Runaway Train turns its attention to anything else. De Mornay does what she can with Sara, but the role is inherently functional, the Woman in a movie whose men have no heterosexual instinct and which is so concerned with male codes of behavior that it has no idea what to do with her (this is grossly un-progressive of me to think, let alone say, but the film would be much stronger if her character was a third man). But at least her presence serves to divert the plot. The regular splits away from the main action to the train control center are a necessary evil that harms the film's momentum; the splits that involve Ranken's continued attempts to capture that wascally Manny aren't even necessary, they simply add a flourish of melodrama that the movie would be entirely better without, and motivate the corniest elements of an otherwise strong ending. That said, it's obviously something that would have been played up in a Kurosawa version of this story, that doubled-down on the sympathetic humanism. There's little of that in this film, which is at it best when it meditates on the broken and dangerous men at its center. In that mode, it's a terrific mix of tightly coiled action and psychoanalysis that has no place in a genre film from the '80s, but works splendidly regardless. It's just a pity that the film dilutes itself; an even more unsparing, lean version of this film could easily be one of the best mainstream American movies of the decade, instead of a way-better-than-you'd-expect thriller.