Thursday, June 24, 2010

Runaway Train (1985)

Well-made, unconventionally tough thriller about two convicts and their attempt to escape from prison. The first act is very leisurely in a '70s kind of way, taking its time to establish the prison life that our two leads are accustomed to, which includes regular riots and beatings from the guards (as one would expect in a Golan-Globus prison). Jon Voight does a phenomenal job as one half of the duo, the feral prison legend Manny, who opens the film leaving a 3-year stint in the hole, cracking wise. He's scarred up and experienced, and is willing to throw down at any moment to defend himself. This may be the strongest and most emotional performance of Voight's that I have ever seen. Eric Roberts is his partner, the laundry boy who Manny only lets accompany him because his laundry route is part of his plan. Roberts was a very capable, very unpredictable actor at this point in the '80s, and he, like Voight, turns in a nuanced, carefully balanced performance, and is not afraid to test the audience's resilience in terms of their sympathies towards his character. Rebecca DeMornay enters the picture about an hour in, and she's surprisingly effective, but still inevitably ends up on the sidelines watching the two leads go at it. Special mention must also go to the villain of the piece, a prison warden that is just as much an animal as Manny, and knows it; watching the lengths of their intense, almost childish rivalry is one of the several hidden pleasures of this film. The movie is a winter-set thriller, and it is never relaxed as a result; even if the characters are completely at peace and out of danger, they still have the very real danger of freezing to death. The tension in this film is palpable, mostly due to the legitimacy of both the prison life and the nature of the prisoners themselves; ex-con Eddie Bunker's presence as co-writer and co-star almost certainly is responsible for that.

Highly Recommended for fans of high-speed thrillers, well-made prison films, or either of the two leads. I was pleasantly surprised by this one; a big budget '80s thriller made with the intensity, originality, and character work of a taut '70s film.

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