Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Runaway Trains

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Over the weekend, I saw two of the films in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Cannon Films Canon series: John Cassavetes's Love Streams and Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train. Both films were backed by Cannon Films, a studio run from 1979 onward by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Golan/Globus were known throughout the 1980s not only for bankrolling a lot of gung-ho action schlock starring Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson and Michael Dudikoff, but also gambling on world-class auteurs like Cassavetes, Jean-Luc Godard and Raúl Ruiz, among others. For that reason, the same studio that brought the world, among other films, the Missing in Action flicks, The Delta Force, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Masters of the Universe and others also brought the aforementioned two titles, King Lear, Treasure Island, Barfly and many other classier projects to a wider audience. That's an almost unheard-of contrast, for an American studio at least, between popular entertainment and art-house fare...and frankly, I wish the Film Society had emphasized the contrast that much more in its otherwise interesting series. (Chuck Norris kicking Robert Forster's ass on the same day Jean-Luc Godard purses his lips as Professor Pluggy in King Lear? That'd at least be someone's dream come true!)

I might get around to the fascinating and strangely moving Love Streams in a later post. For now, though, this:

I wasn't planning to see Runaway Train (1985) this weekend; it's available via Netflix, and was thus not a viewing priority for me. But apparently the Film Society got a wrong print of Treasure Island and only realized it 20 minutes before its scheduled Saturday 2 p.m. screening! So Konchalovsky's film was chosen as its last-minute replacement. Having not seen the film before—and remembering that I was planning to see Tony Scott's new runaway-train movie Unstoppable the next day (more on that later)—I decided I might as well check this out. The film I ended up seeing was, to my mind, a wildly uneven one...but one with an ending so stunning that I'm willing to forgive it a lot. [Spoilers are ahead, obviously, for those who have never seen the film.]

With a screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker that was based on a script written by none other than Akira Kurosawa, Runaway Train aims to be the kind of mix of action-movie thrills, character study and philosophical discourse that Kurosawa often excelled at in his heyday. It thoroughly fulfills its first aim, with a handful of edge-of-your-seat stunts, action sequences and high-powered collisions to satisfy the popcorn crowd. As a character study, though, it's more problematic. Some of the dialogue is so ham-fisted in trying to explore its themes that it's almost a miracle that the actors manage to find imaginative ways to deliver it; on the other hand, some of that acting is just so mannered and hysterical—and alas, yes, that includes the performances of the two Oscar-nominated leads, Jon Voight and (especially) Eric Roberts—that the characters themselves never quite transcend their obvious places in the script's grand allegorical design.

And yet, here is a case where I can mostly forgive the didacticism, since the philosophical and moral issues it raises are so fascinating to ponder. Both having escaped from a maximum-security prison in Alaska, Manny (Voight) and Buck (Roberts) find themselves trapped on a train barreling uncontrollably forth after its conductor suffers a heart attack just as it's about to leave a station; the train becomes the setting for what amounts to moral tug-of-war between a weary older prisoner-legend (Manny) and the dim-bulb younger prisoner who idolizes him (Buck). Buck only knows of a life of crime; a criminal is all he aspires to be. Manny, however, has spent years in the slammer, and it seems all those years have instilled in him a sense of regret at choices not made in his own life. Both of them may technically be "free," but mentally speaking, are they really? Does Buck truly understand the implications of his freedom, or is he actually still stuck in a prison of his own imagining, reinforced by years of being treated like less than a human being by prison authorities? And while Manny seems to have a better grasp of what his freedom means, he is perhaps also locked into his own criminal past, unable to, well, run away from it—especially with the prison's vengeful warden (John P. Ryan) ruthlessly hounding him even after he has escaped from his clutches.

In that sense, Runaway Train is trying to consciously enlarge an action-movie framework to focus not only on the twisted psychologies of its characters, but also on eternal issues of what it means to be truly human. Is Manny, as willing as he is to sacrifice the lives of others for the sake of his own personal freedom, truly the "animal" the warden says he is, especially when he threatens to kill Buck after he tries but fails to uncouple an engine? Or does his own failure to kill Buck suggest genuine moral impulses underneath the increasingly aggressive exterior? The script even introduces a third character, a railway worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), to add a more explicitly spiritual side to this animal-versus-human standoff, with her faith not only in a higher power, but of the compassion of her fellow workers that they won't send them to their deaths. (The latter faith, however, turns out to be broken until the end.)

Again, I'm not certain that the characters are sketched in and performed with enough depth for its psychological/philosophical concerns to resonate beyond our awareness of their place in the script's allegorical scheme. But then comes the film's final five minutes, when Manny and the warden finally have their date with destiny. As hellbent as he remains on not returning to prison, Manny's own sense of humanity finally kicks in as he heroically uncouples the lead train car—proving to Buck, who had failed at the task earlier, that the task could be done if he'd put his mind to it—and saves Buck and Sara from certain death while forging ahead with the fate he himself has decided upon.

As Vivaldi's Gloria operatically plays on the soundtrack, we see shots of the train car barreling ahead to certain doom—and on top of it is Manny, battling the elements but standing upright in a cruciform position. After all the clumsy speechifying, Konchalovsky finally allows an inspired image to suggest everything the film's dialogue had made explicit about the humanity of its characters and the nature of their freedom/imprisonment. By making this choice—to die as a free man rather than return to prison as less than a man—he has found his own kind of autonomy, and exults in this knowledge even as he braces himself for death.


Tony Scott pays tribute to this eloquent image from Runaway Train in the climax of Unstoppable (2010), though the context here is more conventionally heroic rather than ambiguous. Otherwise, the film relates to the Konchalovsky film only in the fact that it features a train that cannot stop. No philosophical/moral pretensions, no over-explicit didacticism, no outsize over-acting; Scott's by now familiar whip pans, quick edits and excessive zooms notwithstanding, the film is a comparably modest meat-and-potatoes action flick ("inspired by true events," an opening title card takes care to note) in which working-class grunts—among them a veteran Pennsylvania railroad engineer (Denzel Washington), a much younger conductor (Chris Pine) and a no-nonsense station chief (Rosario Dawson)—use their combined wits and experience to stop a runaway train from barreling into major residential towns and causing untold amounts of damage and casualties.

The "working class" part is not insignificant. Unstoppable, far from being just a mindless thrill ride, manages to generate a surprising amount of warmth in its depiction of proletariats soldiering on in their humdrum lives amidst mundane personal setbacks (early retirement, marital troubles, and the like), and finding the strength, when faced with an out-of-the-ordinary situation such as this, to summon up the courage to step up, put aside petty resentments and band together in a common goal. It's a stance that will probably resonate with many wage workers during this current recession, as news reports proliferate of long-time veterans being forced into early retirement as a result of downsizing, outsourcing, what have you.

First and foremost, though, this is one hell of an adrenaline rush, boosted by a solid script (by Mark Bomback, who also wrote the screenplay for the last Die Hard installment), fine performances (with Chris Pine, last seen as young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot, admirably holding his own next to Tony Scott veteran Denzel Washington), terrific stunt work and expertly taut pacing. Unstoppable is the kind of momentum-filled action spectacle that Roger Ebert has, over the years, famously called Bruised Forearm movies; in my personal pantheon of Best Bruised Forearm Movies, this one proudly stands alongside such diverse genre films as (among others) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Die Hard 2, Speed and The Bourne Ultimatum. That it features a touch of social relevance—without becoming overly preachy and self-congratulatory about it—just makes it all the sweeter.

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