Mention the actor Jon Voight and there is only one movie that enters my mind – DELIVERENCE. Mention Eric Roberts and my thoughts for some reason switch to his leggy and luscious sister!

Big budget action thrillers hold little appeal to me I have to say but when Arrow Films described director Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1985 Oscar nominated RUNAWAY TRAIN as an "all time classic break out movie" before facilitating its Blu-ray debut, I couldn’t I help but get onboard.

We start at the Stonehaven High Security Prison in Alaska. Inmate Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) has just won a legal battle to finally end his three year stint in ‘the hole’ Such is the danger he poses in the eyes of Governor Ranken (John P. Ryan), for the safe running of the facility, Manny was detained separately from the mainstream prison population.

With news of his unique legal case reaching the mainstream news channels, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) somehow manages to convince a guard to pipe the live news stream into the jail. The Governor’s rather debasing comments referring to Manny and his peers and animals obviously don’t go down to well!

Ranken understandably is somewhat peeved that the court has overridden his decision and exploits the ensuing disturbances by setting up a con to take out Manny as they watch the inter-prison boxing championships. But Manny is a tough ole cookie and excruciatingly defends himself to overcome the knife wielding assassin.

The blade piercing Manny’s palm is effectively the straw that broke the camel’s back and as such he hatches a plan to escape. He recruits Buck who does the laundry run who in turn woos the guard Jackson (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister) with a pair of boxing trainers for his son and some porno magazines. Together they risk the below freezing temperatures and escape via the sewer system into the glacial Alaskan waters.

Following his visceral instincts, Manny leads the pair to a railway exchange. Relieving a carriage of some uniforms, the fugitive’s intuition kicks in again and he has no doubt which train is his "Limousine to Broadway". Unfortunately for him the "old fart of an engineer" is just about to have a heart attack as the convoy of carriages race along.

The absconders are then faced not only by the pursuit of the authorities, but the fact their bid for freedom is recklessly hurtling toward certain death on a Runaway Train...

This one rally took me by surprise I have to say. From the very first few frames I was captivated. The authenticity of the harsh prison setting was devoid of the Hollywood glamour. The building actually used was Old Montana Territorial Prison in Deer Lodge, which instantly gave the movie a gritty edge.

Another element of realism that was shrewdly woven into the fabric of the film was the input of the criminal turned author and actor, the late Eddie Bunker. Bunker, who I first came across as Mr Blue in Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS, passed away in 2005 and in his early life, spent 17 years in Folsom State Prison. For RT, Bunker was on script writing duties for the Russian director. He also plays a small but significant role as Manny’s incarcerated comrade, Jonah. But at the centre of the picture is Jon Voight. I freely admit I am no authority on quality acting but I have to say I found Voight’s performance simply majestic throughout. Helped by a genuinely meaty and complex character, his portrayal of the jail hardened Manny was steeped in authenticity. But during the speed induced crisis, when he allows himself to be reduced to a common thug and in doing so destroys the worship his younger peer once had for him, it is a genuinely moving scene magnificently acted without the need for dialogue.

With Arrows discs being granted a "15" certificate, I was quite surprised to see just how brutal the movie was especially in the opening half an hour or so. The knife attacks and prison beatings were realistically vicious and even depicted one poor victim trying in vain to stop his guts spill through his fingers after being subject to multiple stabbings.

Arrow Films is the first company to put the movie out on Blu-ray, but even the new DVD version had some tremendous attributes.

Given the snow swept setting of Alaska, the uncompromising prison and a rather bland train car, the picture quality still shone throughout. Manny’s rosy cheeks as he toiled through blizzards with flakes clinging to his handle bar moustache were sharp and conspicuous, while the blood smudges on Jonah’s shaved scalp courtesy of prison wardens baton’s raining blows upon it also were explicitly evident. The Stereo 2.0 PCM audio of the disc was also impressive. The raging snarl of the carriages careering wildly down the tracks roared from left to right speaker to great effect. But there was even some subtle touches such as footsteps and hushed prison whispers that stretched the panorama of sound with aplomb.

The disc has over 90 minutes of extras which consist of interviews with the director and the esteemed cast.

Starting with "Running on Empty" (15 mins) director Andrei Konchalovsky recalls how Voight assisted him originally get his Green Card to the United States along with some recollections from the shoot. In "From Thespian to Fugitive" Voight himself is the focus of a 36 minute interview segment. He recalls how very reluctant he initially was to take the role but passionately reveres the director’s unique "dance with the camera" style from an actor’s perspective. Some regrets about how the Canon Group were considered pedlars of schlock meant the combination of Hollywood politics and poor distribution denied the movie an Oscar it truly deserved.

"Sweet and Savage" (15 mins) sees a present day Eric Roberts reminisce about the movie including his own input to give his Buck a ‘country bumpkin’ accent in order to soften the ‘statutory rape’ charge of his character. He also quite brilliants describes the temperatures of the on location shoot in Alaska as being "…as cold as a nuns ass"!

Another 15 minute interview, "The Calm Before the Chaos", this time with co-star Kyle T Heffner who plays the exasperated train track architect, completes the interviews.

The trailer complimented by Rod Lurie’s TRAILERS FROM HELL commentary rounds off the bonus material.

I was only provided with DVD disc but the retail package comes complete with an exclusive booklet with the musings of Michal Brooke, a recent interview with the movies Production Designer, Stephen Marsh and most intriguingly the original TIME LIFE magazine article that inspired the movie. The booklet comes complete with rare behind the scenes ‘production images’.

To label RUNAWAY TRAIN simply an action thriller undermines the true spirit of the movie. Yes there are crashes and violence to be witnessed but at the core of the picture there are some fascinatingly plausible characters whose plight is laden with tension. With a poetically dark conclusion that transcends similar films of this genre, it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking from everyone involved with the project. Arrow’s release has done justice to a movie that could quite easily be enjoyed again and again.

Review by Marc Lissenburg

Released by Arrow Video
Region 2 PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review