Cannon Goes Legit: Golan, Globus and a ‘Runaway Train’

Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at Runaway Train.

By the mid-1980s, everyone knew what to expect from Cannon Films. “Low budget, low brow action pictures,” said former Cannon Vice President Christopher Pearce for Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014), the definitive documentary on the company. Their most popular films of the period starred Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris in gleefully over-the-top shoot ‘em ups like the Death Wish sequels and Invasion USA. In 1985, the studio released a film of a decidedly different ambition starring an Oscar Winner along with a respected cast, helmed by a visionary director, and based on a screenplay by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Though still an action-adventure film and certainly low budget, Runaway Train is decidedly not lowbrow.

Kurosawa wrote and developed the script in the mid-’60s with the intention of making the film himself. Though he had enjoyed great success at home and abroad since Rashomon in 1950, following Red Beard (1965), he began to face backlash from Japanese critics who felt his sensibility was “too western.” Soon, the legendary auteur was struggling to find funding, reaching out to investors in Russia and the United States to make his late period masterpieces Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985) among others. In the necessity to focus on making only his most treasured projects, Runaway Train fell by the wayside.

Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon’s colorful executives, seem like the last producers one would expect to greenlight a property of such pedigree, but they did and deserve a great deal of credit for it. Perhaps they felt they could bank on the recent Kurosawa resurgence that was occurring due to the director being championed by the likes of John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, who helped finance Kagemusha. The screenplay for Runaway Train written by Djorde Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and Edward Bunker no doubt takes liberties with Kurosawa’s original, but it still retains several hallmarks of his work. The story follows marginalised members of society, convicts in this case, much like the peasants, ronin samurai, and working-class nobodies of so many of Kurosawa’s films. The characters are simultaneously mythic archetypes and nuanced, flawed human beings. Finally, it is a grandly scaled, highly entertaining adventure story while still shining a light on social and political structures and injustices.

The film opens at the fictional Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison in Alaska—isolated, snowbound, impossible to escape. From the first moments of the film, we hear of Oscar “Manny” Manheim. He is a folk hero to the inmates and “not a man, but an animal” to the cruel Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan). Manny has made several escape attempts and proven himself so dangerous that he has been welded into his cell for the past three years. Six years before Silence of the Lambs, we are introduced to Manny in true Hannibal Lecter fashion. The other characters talk about him constantly for the first ten minutes, setting up his “animal” nature. Then our expectations are subverted by the casting of not an imposing, intimidating actor, but Jon Voight, well known up to then for sensitive performances in films like Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Coming Home (1978). In many ways, this is a brilliant casting choice because, after he appears on the screen, we no longer have any idea what to expect from him.

As an audience, we never really know what to expect from any of the characters, except perhaps Ranken. In an early monologue, he reveals his character thoroughly when he addresses the inmates of Stonehaven, who have just rioted over the news of Manny’s release back into the main population. “You are all punks, hiding there, yelling in the dark. Let me tell you where you assholes stand. First, there’s God. Then the warden. Then my guards. Then the dogs out there in the kennel. And finally you, pieces of human waste. No good to yourselves or anybody else.” His character is the corruptor, the accuser, the unrelenting pursuer. In the more mythic sense, he is Satan—the irredeemable devil who will lie and scheme his way to his desired ends. He also represents injustice and cruelty in the prison system. He encourages brutality from his guards and violence between prisoners. He forces another inmate to attack Manny with a shiv as they are spectators at a prison boxing match, stabbing him in the arm and hand in the process.

Weary of the constant attacks from Ranken, Manny plans another escape attempt, which as it turns out, is exactly what Ranken wants. He knows he can use an escape as justification to finally kill him. With the assistance of Buck (Eric Roberts), Manny hides in a laundry cart to make his harrowing escape. Once they are past the guards, Buck decides to come with Manny. The two crawl through the sewers to the end of the pipe and a three hundred foot drop to the freezing river below. They travel on foot through the frigid Alaskan wilderness to a freight train station where they are almost caught before jumping the train where we will spend most of the rest of the film. Soon, Ranken hears of the escape. Proving his sadism, he orders his guards not to kill him, he wants to do it himself. Ranken boards a helicopter, along with a small crew, to take on the pursuit.

The structure of the rest of the film is built on a method of escalating suspense that would make Hitchcock proud. We as an audience are given information that Manny and Buck don’t know. First, the engineer of the train they jump dies of a heart attack, but the two escapees are completely unaware. We soon learn that the train is running on a “foolproof system,” never a good sign in movies. Dr. Strangelove, Westworld, and Jurassic Park are just a few plots built around such systems. The train consists only of four engines—no freight cars, so it begins to move extremely fast. Before his death, the engineer attempts to engage the brakes, but as the other engines continue to charge ahead, they burn off. There is no way to stop the train except to derail it. As an audience, we learn of upcoming dangers from the freight company’s control room, which functions something like Mission Control in Apollo 13. The main difference is that the company does not care about destroying the train or realise that anyone is on board.

The film avoids becoming only a “problem” movie by giving us important character beats throughout. These happen mostly between Manny, Buck, and eventually Rebecca De Mornay’s character, Sara. We also get several insights into control room workers Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner), Eddie MacDonald (Kenneth McMillan), and Dave Prince (T.K. Carter). Two scenes between Manny and Buck are particularly poignant. In the first, Manny tells Buck that when he gets to freedom, he should get a menial job and hold onto it “because it’s gold.” Buck responds that there’s no way he could ever do that and asks if Manny could. “I wish I could,” says Manny.

The other comes late in the film. After Buck fails in an attempt to reach the lead engine to shut it down, Manny becomes enraged and we finally see the animal that Ranken has called him from the beginning emerge. He kicks and beats Buck, at one point ready to kill him. When he is called an animal, he responds, “No! Worse! Human. Human!” At that moment, Manny realizes that he is exactly what Ranken and society at large think he is. Manny’s rage turns to despair as Buck, seeing that his hero has fallen, confronts him with the horrifying truth. “You know, you’re worse than Ranken, when the truth comes out. At least he’s upfront with is bullshit. You was a hero. You was a hero to all of us back in that shithole.” And that is one of the heartbreaking realities of Runaway Train—the realisation that our heroes are human and capable of horrible failure.

Cutting back to the control room, we learn that the train is heading for a chemical plant. MacDonald decides to switch the track to a dead-end which will destroy the train, saying that they will save the plant. “We’re still gonna lose those three people!” Barstow protests, highlighting another theme of Kurosawa in which the common man is crushed by corporate and bureaucratic greed. Barstow, who has built the entire foolproof system laments that even with all this high technology, they couldn’t stop it. As humans, we become complacent in the belief that we are in control. Our ingenuity, technology, and knowledge will work everything out—but chaos still happens, and we realise that we are much smaller than we thought. It is a devastating lesson, but one that humanity has learned all-too-well in recent months.

The greatest power of Runaway Train occurs after Buck, Sara, and Manny all realise that the track has been switched. Sara, who works for the railroad, knows that they are heading for the end of the line, a collision course with a cliff, and certain death. Manny determines to cross to the lead engine himself. Ranken has also caught up with the train and climbs down a rope ladder hanging below the helicopter in an attempt to catch the convicts. In a harrowing crossing from one engine to the next, Manny’s hand is smashed in the link between them, but he still manages to get aboard. As he is about to shut the lead locomotive down, Ranken also enters the cab. During a brief struggle, Manny shackles Ranken to wreckage inside the lead engine left from an earlier crash. In the final moments, the fallen hero becomes a messiah again. He uncouples the other engines, which have already been shut down, and climbs to the roof of the lead, still on a collision course with oblivion.

The final shot of Manny standing atop the speeding locomotive with arms outstretched is intercut with the faces of those still behind bars in Stonehaven Prison. In sacrificing himself, Manny is defeating the devil, freeing the captives, and becoming the hero those prisoners perceive him to be. It is an ending that is bittersweet and truthful. Simultaneously melancholy and inspiring. The film gives us no explosive collision, no rescue scene of Buck and Sara, no final onscreen demise of Ranken. Instead, it gives us an image of freedom and power that stays in our minds long after the fade to black. It gives us something more valuable than simple answers. It gives us hope.

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