It’s easy to forget that at one time, before the controversies of paternity and politics, Jon Voight was considered one of, if not the, greatest actors in the world. The same can be said for Eric Roberts in the era before he was in a movie every single week. Runaway Train is a reminder that just how powerful both men can be.
It’s also a remembrance that Cannon wasn’t just the studio of ninjas and Norris. The script came from director Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker and it was based on an original screenplay by Akira Kurosawa (who worked on it with Hideo Oguni and Ryūzō Kikushima). That’s a real pedigree for any movie, much less one that was produced by Golan and Globus.
Kurosawa had read an article in Life magazine about a runaway train and worked up his original script, which he intended to make in 1966 for Embassy Pictures in America, but the money kept falling through and he moved on to make Tora! Tora! Tora!
Fifteen years later, the Nippon Herald company owned that script and decided to get it made. They asked Francis Ford Coppola to recommend a director and he suggested Andrei Konchalovsky.
Konchalovsky had made Maria’s Lovers already for Cannon (he’d also make Duet for One and Shy People for Golan and Globus) and he was able to get the studio on board, as well as Voight, who had aided him in receiving his first U.S. work visa.
The result? A Cannon film nominated for three Oscars: Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor for Roberts and Best Actor for Voight.
Oscar “Manny” Manheim (Voight) is a hero to the men of Alaska’s Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. He’s almost escaped numerous times and a three-year bid in solitary hasn’t dulled his edge or need to be free. After a court order gets him back in general population, he’s targeted by the warden (John P. Ryan, who is also in Cannon’s Avenging Force, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown and Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection). There’s an incredible scene set during a boxing match — look for a young Danny Trejo* — when another prisoner tries to stab Manheim under orders. Even as he’s knifed and sliced through his hand, Manheim is a feral animal, walking through the gunfire of the guards and demanding that his would-be killer keep coming after him.
All of this means that his next escape plan needs to happen now. He works with Buck McGeehy (Roberts) to scale the wall, run through the snow, swim across a frozen river and take a train across the country to freedom. If only it were that simple.
What follows is a train — and Manny — out of control, roaring into the snow-strewn world with the cry of a feral beast, challenging man, nature, machine and fate as the convict would rather choose the victory of death than the defeat of being held within prison walls. I was struck by the final shot as he stands atop the ruined lead engine, arms outstretched and howling at destiny.
Rebecca De Mornay is also great in this as Sara, one of the few crew members on the train and an example of humanity in the midst of all this rage.
Runaway Train is probably the best film that ever came out of Cannon, if not the most successful at the box office. It never lets up and makes you believe and care about its leads unlike any movie I’ve seen in years. I can only imagine how excited Golan and Globus were to be, if only fleetingly, the producers of a movie that people took seriously.
*Trejo was the Narcotics Anonymous sponsor of one of the production assistants on this movie. He was visiting that person when he was offered a job as an extra. Edward Bunker, who wrote Straight Time and Animal Factory — as well as this film — had been in San Quentin with Trejo and got him hired as Roberts’ boxing coach. Konchalovskiy was so impressed with Trejo that he gave him his role. Trejo would later say that he was amazed to earn $320 a day, more than any crime had ever made him.