April 16, 2009

Runaway Train

1985 film
directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
written by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Djordje Milicevic, Edward Bunker, Paul Zindel

(1985 script)

A pair of prisoners, in the midst of a brazen escape from Alaska's Stonehaven prison, hitch a ride on a train that quickly finds itself roaring out of control through the frozen tundra with no breaks and a dead engineer.

You just can't beat a great concept like that. Unfortunately, you can break it a bit.

As I pointed out with my review of the script (see above) through the course of its development, the story took a few bad turns. Though there have been some little tweaks and touchups here and there, the broader rewrite it so desperately needed never came along. Take the setup for example. While the concept is great, it takes nearly half the picture for the story to get going as it rides in the choppy wake of a string of unbelievable coincidences and an unnecessarily extended opening in the prison meant to set up our characters, even though it gives us nothing we couldn't gather in the middle of their run.

And then there's the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Though some of the worst groaners have been trimmed out, the words this collection of writers (I wish I knew who specifically to blame) strung together still slide around like marbles in the performers' mouths. Sequences that are supposed to be deep or inspirational stumble through excessive slang and choppy banter. Hell, one of the few great lines in the script, "I expect nothing. I prepare for everything," is inexplicably cut in half.

Despite having this to work with, much of the acting is grand. Jon Voigt commands the screen as Manny, a pragmatic convict "at war with the world" who escapes because he knows it'll be his only hope of surviving a warden lining him up for an assassin's shiv. He's mean, he's a badass, but, most importantly, he's human and we can see the mind working beneath the scarred, bitter face as he understands what he needs to do to save not people, but ideals.

At his side is Buck, a young lunk of a boxer who sees Manny as a hero and tags along on the escape with the hopes of sharing the spotlight. Eric Roberts is perfect. His Buck leaps and swears with an energetic will to prove himself, but starts to fold when the reality sinks in. What could have been a typical idiot really shines as an innocent kid who's trying so hard to be something he might, deep down, not even want to be.

Rounding out the trio onboard the train is Rebecca De Mornay. Making her character of a swept away grease monkey into a woman could have come off as a forced way to slip a girl into an otherwise purely guy flick, but they handle it quite well, giving her a spunk and determination that gets the convicts listening as she tells them what happened and how they can help her fix it. While not much of the broader script has changed since the draft I reviewed, I'm glad to say that the glaring problems with her character were among the few major tweaks. The unnecessary spiritualization that comes out of nowhere with sudden blurts about God and miracles? It's now tucked into quiet, unspoken, beautiful moments. Her act at the end that was nothing more than cheap exploitation? Greatly toned down into something soft and touching. I'm glad to say her character now shines as strongly as the other two.

The biggest problem I had with the script was the character of Ranken, the brutal Warden of Stonehaven who wants nothing more than to bring these two convicts back under his control. While still a completely unnecessary addition to the story and the image of him swinging around in a helicopter in the 3rd act is still quite ridiculous, John P. Ryan almost makes the character worthwhile. He takes what could have been just another blowhard redneck and gives him a quiet dignity that makes the moments of cruelty all the more shocking when they erupt to the surface, and the tweaks they made to his involvement in the conclusion are actually quite strong.

If the cast has a weak spot, it's the railway technicians. I love the way the story set them up as petty bureaucrats more interested in showing off their hardware and preserving their reputations than they are in saving lives, but other than the always entertaining Kenneth McMillan, none of the characters really come alive. A lot of this has to do with the already mentioned dialogue issues and the fact that elements of procedure that could have been much more meatily explored are glazed over, but the actors don't help. I'm not saying they were bad, they just never quite fit.

Now, as uneven as things turned out, I do have to give props to director Konchalovsky. Though he really needed to develop the material much more thoroughly and there are some questionable choices here and there, he directs it with style, energy, and a realistic attention to detail. The costumes and makeup are especially well handled, capturing the flushed, chapped faces of winter as people bury themselves in as many worn layers as they can get their hands on. And it's all dirty. So wonderfully dirty.

And the train. Man, what a monster that is. Four engines tied together as they scream down the half-frozen rails with melting breaks spraying out the sides. And after it's collision with another car, the gaping, smoldering maw of the beast rips through the gray wasteland like Hell alive. It's a marvelous image.

Unfortunately, the score by Trevor Jones is largely a disappointment. While there is a glorious, haunting dirge over the final sequence, most of the film consists of painfully typical 80s action music. I can't tell you how many otherwise masterful sequences were killed with the fake drumbeat and plucky guitar riffs.

Man, just look at the ocean waves of this review. We go up. We go down. Over and over again, which just goes to show how uneven and frustrating I find this film. It's a good movie, startlingly brilliant at times, but it just never lives up to it's fullest potential. That said, as messy as the buildup and journey are, that ending, that gripping, human finale, which is so purely in the spirit of Kurosawa, always gets me and somehow makes the entire experience worthwhile.


(internet movie database)


Anthony Williams said...

Excellent review. You know, as frustrating as it can be to see the missed potential, it's the balance of the highs with the lows that ultimately make movies like this worthwhile.

This one is majorly obscure BTW. I'd never even heard of it let alone seen it. Not on pay cable, not even on those Sunday afternoon movies. And to think of Kurowsawa directing it? Mind-blowing.

IMDB voters give it an astounding 7.3 BTW!

NoelCT said...

I definitely agree. While it did miss its full potential, the goods are still more than good enough to make it worthwhile. I'd give it a 7.

And it's hard to believe it's become so obscure. Not only was it a critical favorite for the year, but it earned Oscar nods for both Voigt and Roberts, as well as editing.