Runaway Train ★★★

“You know what a riot in a maximum security prison looks like? Your brains are too small to imagine it.”

Runaway Train is not what I normally think of a Cannes movie, as it's also a Cannon movie, and starts off like the kind of energetically pulpy thriller that Cannon Films was known for during the mid-1980s. I recall this movie getting a lot of praise for its acting at the time, but I've never been that fascinated by either train movies or prison movies so I skipped it then.

Two convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) escape from a remote Alaskan prison. However, there's one problem with the small train they attempt to use as their vehicle back to civilization: it has no engineer, and hurtles at an unmanageable speed across the hazardous Alaskan wilderness. While the cruel prison warden (John P. Ryan) pursues them, and the high-tech railway control headquarters attempts to minimize the damage, the escapees -- joined by a Dickensian engineer's apprentice (Rebecca De Mornay) -- face an almost certain doom.

Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, whose previous collaboration Andrei Tarkovsky is not evident in his second English-language movie, but there is a dash of influence from Akira Kurosawa, who is credited with the story. Beyond a skill for using contemplative silence and big frames to break the action noise, however, Runaway Train is a lot closer to pulp than art film. The acting from Voight and Roberts -- and, really, everyone, including an extra shoving fistfuls of popcorn into his mouth as an act of self-abuse -- is enthusiastic. When Voight gets wound up, he is simultaneously ridiculous and 150% in the moment. Native Georgian Roberts manages one of the most awful southern accents imaginable (his repeated anguished howls of what sounds like "Mayonnaise!" near the end encapsulate the bizarre duality of his heartfelt but often absurdly comical performance). There is, throughout, overripe dialog delivered very loudly and with violent gesticulation, but you never doubt the commitment of the actors or their investment in the scenario, which is infectious if not always credible.

In other neat casting, Seinfeld's Bizarro George panics at HQ, while Danny Trejo makes his screen debut (this year, coincidentally, I've seen Trejo's two earliest movie appearances, both ending poorly for his characters), and the grinning Ryan is typically fun as a complicated heavy.

As a work of action cinema, Runaway Train is consistently energetic and tense. There is some loose adherence to time, as some of the many firm deadlines for disaster seem to stretch on indefinitely, which becomes more problematic as the film races toward its ever-extending climax. Because of some fantastic train footage in the build-up-- you want to see a caboose get pulverized at high speed? -- Konchalovsky's (possibly budget-dictated) decision to forego spectacle at the very end feels like a cheat, even if it works thematically. Then again, the kind of movie that would go bigger in its final moments would probably be worse in most other respects.