written by Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Djordje Milicevic, Edward Bunker
During the 1960s, Kurosawa's career was starting to cool in his homeland, but over in the U.S., he was rapidly rising to a legendary status. So, inevitably, American studios pitched him a few offers for films shot on their shores. One was TORA! TORA! TORA!, which Kurosawa pushed through development until the studio booted him for fear that his perfectionist ways would drive it vastly over budget. The other was a script called RUNAWAY TRAIN that quickly went nowhere until a renewed interest in the director dusted it off in the 80s.
The plot is simple. A pair of prisoners hatch a brazen escape into a wintry wilderness, only to find their efforts thwarted when the train they hitch a ride on goes careening down the tracks with no breaks and no engineer.
The prisoners are your typical set of old/mean and young/stupid. Oscar "Manny" Manheim just won a civil rights appeal against the warden who permanently welded him into his cell nine years ago, and the warden responds to a bout of hero worship on the part of the inmates by setting in motion Manny's assassination. Wanting to get out while the getting's good, Manny launches his escape with the help of Buck, a bumbling knucklehead who decides to tag along because it'll improve his street cred. Despite the lack of creativity in terms of their conception, I give the writers praise for at least digging into the archetypes with a little more depth in a relationship that felt straight out of EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, one of my favs. Manny just wants pure, uninhibited freedom. And Buck, initially desiring glory, quickly realizes he's in over his head.
In something that feels very Kurosawa, we get a nice community built around the operators of the railway system. On one side, we get a man who wants to derail the train, lives on board bedamned, so as to preserve both property and reputations. On the other, there's a dude who wants to keep it going, not so much for the people, but so he can show off the skills of his computerized routing board. I say it feels right up the director's alley because there's some wonderful observations of procedure and the dehumanization of petty bureaucracy.
Now, I bet you're asking why anybody would be remotely interested in preserving the lives of a couple of convicts. Well, they aren't alone. A service assistant named Sara Maguire was swept away as the train took off and now it's her rough knowledge of the vehicle that just might see them through. I'm sure there are many out there groaning that the rewriters found a way to slip a girl into a guy film, but I thought it worked. At least, initially. When she first bumps into the convicts and they react to the presence of a woman in the way convicts typically do, she admirably holds her ground, explains the situation, and recruits them in her efforts to stop they train. After all, what other choice do they have if they want to live? Unfortunately, she only holds up for the first half of her screentime. As the situation gets tougher and tougher, instead of persevering, a strong sense of faith springs out of nowhere and she begins bubbling into prayers and talk about miracles. And when things really get dire? She pops open her shirt and starts doing the dirty deed with a criminal.
Yeah, it really doesn't work. And, sadly, it's not the only flaw in the script. One of the largest is the basic setup. The whole escape of the prisoners feels terribly slapped together and relied heavily on a nearby river that should be much more heavily guarded than it is. Getting them on the train wasn't bad, but the way the engineer croaks from a sudden heart attack, followed by a 20 page stretch where the convicts are clueless to their plight, followed by a crash into another train that cripples the engine, followed by yet another stretch where the convicts are clueless to their ... Anyway, suffice it to say that the opening not only drags far more than it should, it's so damned coincidental as to stretch all plausibility. Why couldn't the "runaway" nature of the train be the result of their escape? Thus making them guilty for their own plight.
But that's not even the worst of it. No, instead of putting much more focus on the psychological tension of the three on the train, someone (I strongly doubt it was Kurosawa, Kikushima, or Oguni) had the idea of adding a villain. Meet Ranken, the Warden of Stonehaven prison, who's exactly the redneck prick of a brutal lawman I'm sure you're picturing right now. In an overly ambitious concept, he's worried the escape, if unthwarted, will lead to major riots in every prison in the country. So he gets in a chopper with a rifle and a heaping dose of attitude so he can brave the blizzard conditions and drag these two varmints back. Let me put this simply: He. Adds. Nothing. If you take him out of the script, it becomes tighter, deeper, and leaner. Whoever it was that slipped this stock asshole into the story should be smacked upside the back of their noggin. That said, the swirlie scene was great.
Is that it in terms of complaints? Nope. I've got to point out the dialogue. Though it mostly gets the job done, there are some terrible stretches of absolutely wretched wordplay in there. An excerpt:
BUCK: You'd better not be jivin'!
SARA: Don't threaten me, punk! What's wrong with you?
MANNY: Yeah ... don't threaten her, punk!
BUCK: What if she's bullshitting?
MANNY: She ain't. C'mon, let's make our move.
SARA: God must've set you guys to me.
Urg. It makes my eyes water to read it. Notice the choppiness, the bad attempts at slang, and Sara's final line that just bursts in from nowhere. The whole script is peppered with these bits.
So, there. We have an uneven character, a sloppy setup, a totally unnecessary villain, and eye watering dialogue. Bad script? Certainly not. It's far from great, but the basic idea and central dynamic, not to mention clever asides with the technicians and genuine roaring suspense, really does make for a powerful, engaging read. Sure, it needs a lot of work and I highly doubt it lives up to the original Kurosawa/Kikushima/Oguni draft (which I'd really love to get my hands on) but there's definite potential for a solid film.