The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Back on the Alaska train after 29 years – does it run as well as it used to?

with 28 comments


Does the name “Runaway Train” tell you something? No? You’re probably not alone.

Isn’t it strange how quickly a movie falls into oblivion? Runaway Train was by no means a small and obscure movie when it came out in 1985. According to Wikipedia it did pretty well at the box office. Jon Voigt received a Golden Globe award for his performance and it was nominated for three Academy awards. Roger Ebert gave it a four star review. It certainly didn’t pass unnoticed. I watched it around the time it came out, and while I had forgotten about the details over the years, it has lingered in my memory as one of the best movies taking place on a train.

These days very few seem to remember it and I’ve never seen it mentioned on any top list. When I asked a couple of fellow movie bloggers from US they just barely recognized the title. And those guys are knowledgeable cinephiles! I think the American film critic Michael Philips was right when he appointed it “the most underrated movie of the 80s”.

Safe for a rewatch
When a bunch of Swedish movie bloggers decided to devote this month’s blogathon to movies about trains, Runaway Train was the first one that came to my mind. After almost 30 years (OMG, has it been that long?), I wanted to pay it a revisit to see what it was like.

Would I get a ride as thrilling as I remembered it to be? Would it hold up? I approached it with certain caution, as I do with movies from the 80s. The pace is often a great deal slower than we’re used to these days and there’s something about the music that doesn’t work for me: strange, annoying electronic music that just is too much.

But I needn’t have worried. This one is safe for a rerun and I urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a go.

This is the story: two convicts – one veteran and one youngster – escape from a prison in Alaska in the middle of the winter. They jump aboard a freight train. But soon after, the engineer dies of a heart attack and they find themselves on a train running at full speed, out of control. Meanwhile they’re chased by the security staff from the prison.

Great execution
It’s a simple plot, but what makes this movie so great is the execution. I’ve seen other trains running wild, but none that feels so absolutely unstoppable. There’s something very real about this monster wrapped in ice and snow, the hostile landscape and the two desperate men clinging to its outside, inches from their runawaytraincertain death. Watching it I couldn’t help asking myself if all the wonders of modern technology in form of CGI and 3D really have added all that much to the experience. At least in this case, I doubt they could do it any better today. That’s also why I keep my fingers crossed that this movie won’t catch the attention of the people who search the 80s for movies to make again. Runaway Train mustn’t be touched. I can’t see how anyone could make it better today – or even as good. Who could replace Jon Voight as the older villain for one thing? Impossible.

Finally I need to mention the ending. I won’t reveal it here, in case you haven’t seen the film, but it’s just beautiful, one of those endings that send you chills along the spine for its emotional impact combined with cold perfection. See and learn, aspiring filmmakers wherever you are! This is how you do it.

Further reading
There’s a great deal more to say about this movie, but I found someone who said it so much better than I possibly could. I urge you to read this article by Graham Daseler at Bright Lights Film Journal. Apart from a great analysis, it’s also got a lot of information about the making of the movie, including some snippets from interviews with the director Andrei Konchalovsky, such as those samples:

You have to be an optimist to make a film about trains.” director Andrei Konchalovsky states.  “Working with trains was very difficult, dangerous, and complicated.  The engines were an enormous amount of steel, very difficult to stop, and treacherous to work around.”

“”The train is a symbol for whatever you want it to be,” the film’s director, Andrei Konchalovsky, explains.”It can be viewed as a prison because they can’t get out of it, or considered as freedom because they escaped from prison on it, or considered as our civilization running out of control because no-one can stop it.”

However a word of warning is needed: If you’re spoiler sensitive you should wait reading it until you’ve seen the film since it goes into detail about the ending.

Runaway Train (Andrei Konchalovsky, US 1985) My rating: 4,5/5


I watched Runaway Train as a part of a the theme of the month of the Swedish film blogging network Filmspanarna Here are links to the other participants..

In English:

Fredrik on film

In Swedish:

Except Fear
Fiffis filmtajm
Fripps filmrevyer
Har du inte sett den
Moving landscapes
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord

Written by Jessica

January 8, 2014 at 6:00 am

28 Responses

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  1. Great highlight Jessica. It’s been many moons since I seen this but I remember really liking it. Voight and Roberts are outstanding and thoroughly deserved their Oscar nominations. I’ve I remember correctly, does it not have a philosophical undertone to it? Raising it above just a generic action movie…

    Mark Walker

    January 8, 2014 at 9:45 am

    • It does. Very strong ones. I remember writing a review about this one a while ago and trying to dissect the various themes and philosophical undertones. Existentialism. Nihilism. Causality. Fate. Etc. It definitely elevated it above just a mindless train action film.

      It was actually based off a Kurosawa screenplay and produced by, believe it or not, Golan and Globus.

      One of my favorites. Whenever people ask for the most underrated film I can think of, I always pick this one.


      January 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

      • That’s right, man! I forgot that it was based on a Kurosawa screenplay. I really want to see this again now. It’s been years!

        Mark Walker

        January 8, 2014 at 11:13 am

        • Hell, so do I.
          I forgot that Konchalovsky went onto direct (among other things) Tango & Cash. Not exactly a “thinking man’s thriller”, but I love that film also. Tango & Cash, more than Runaway Train, epitomizes a big-time Hollywood 80s production. Gotta see that one again, too.


          January 8, 2014 at 12:19 pm

        • Do it! (Pst – a hint. I usually try to pay for the films I see, but in case of this one I fell for the temptation to watch it on YouTube. It’s available for Europe, but not for US.)


          January 8, 2014 at 6:31 pm

          • Nice! I do like my films viewing to be if a high quality but when you can get one for free, it’s far too tempting. Cheers Jessica.

            Mark Walker

            January 8, 2014 at 7:31 pm

      • I can only agree with you. I was surprised to see who the writer was before I watched it – but not afterwards. I’m so glad someone more has written about it recently. This movie needs to be introduced to a new generation of film fans.


        January 8, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    • Voight is outstanding indeed. Roberts is a little bit… special. But I got used to him after a while. Indeed there’s a philosophicl undertone. It’s far more than a standard action movie. The final act lifts it so high.


      January 8, 2014 at 6:28 pm

      • I do remember being quite irritated with Roberts as well but, like you, I ended up liking him. Man, this film’s bringing back so many memories. I had forgotten all about it.

        Mark Walker

        January 8, 2014 at 7:38 pm

        • Rewatch it! And then you should read the article I linked to. It’s really excellent, both in the analysis and in the background information.


          January 8, 2014 at 7:44 pm

          • I’ll do that! I’ve a lot to get through at the moment but if this is available on the net then I’m certainly not going to pass that opportunity up.

            Mark Walker

            January 8, 2014 at 7:45 pm

  2. Wow I remember seeing this movie years ago. It was probably back in the late 1980s. I remember really liking it but it’s been so long since I’ve watched it. Maybe a revisit is in order.


    January 8, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    • Yes! Lets make this a thing! I’d love if I could make a whole bunch of movie bloggers pay it a revisit!


      January 8, 2014 at 6:32 pm

  3. I saw this one 25 years ago. It feels like 50. 😉 I think I must see it again, I don´t remember a single thing more than Jon Voight.


    January 8, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    • I didn’t either. So it was really nice to revisit it.


      January 8, 2014 at 6:37 pm

  4. Great choice for this blogathon! I have surely not forgotten it as it is still one of my favourite movies. I have actually used it in lists for two blogathons the last 12 months. Both the current “Trains” as well as the blogathon from January last year “På väg” in Swedish which can mean several things, a variation of “on the road” but also “onwards” as in to a goal/destiny/destination/the finish etc.

    Runaway train is both a thrilling action-thriller-adventure, and a deeply moving film and I always get goosebumps at the ending. The music is great, the acting is marvelous, the direction and the script are flawless. What a GREAT movie! 5/5 without a doubt.


    January 8, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    • It’s one of the most goosebump causing endings I’ve ever seen. We don’t always agree on movies but I love that we’re on the same side about this one!


      January 8, 2014 at 6:39 pm

  5. I have seen it and I like it. Especially remember the ending. But apart from that I can’t say I remember that much, just that it had a rough, raw, dirty feeling to it. Is it really that forgotten? Maybe by ordinary folks but the ordinary movie blogger sure knows about it, or?


    January 8, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    • Well I haven’t made a big scientific research about it, but out of those that I was chatting to one didn’t even know what it was and the other one knew the title but hadn’t seen it. Both American. Perhaps it was bigger here?


      January 8, 2014 at 6:40 pm

  6. I haven’t seen it yet, but will definitely try harder now (esp considering the Kurosawa connection). Still, I’m a bit surpised that it should be so little known, the title is at least definitely within my movie framework.


    January 8, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    • What I just wrote to Jojjenito: I can’t claim that I have scientific evidence for it, but my impression is that it’s a bit forgotten. And definitely overlooked. You don’t see it in lists very much. You should see it. It’s available on Youtube.


      January 8, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      • Maybe that’s it. Not forgotten but overlooked?


        January 8, 2014 at 7:10 pm

        • Overlooked by those who are old enough to have seen it back in the days. Forgotten or rather unknown with the younger once since no one has told them it’s a must-see.


          January 8, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      • Huh, youtube? That’s good to hear, thanks for that tip as well 🙂


        January 9, 2014 at 6:29 am

  7. I was a while ago since I saw this film but I did like it. It´s also a proof the Eric Roberts it´s a way better actor than his sister. The world isn´t always fair.


    January 8, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    • It was interesting to see his filmography on IMDb. It’s not an actor that I was aware of, but oh how productive he’s been! However he seems to sadly have fallen into the B movie genre (and suffered from addiciton).


      January 8, 2014 at 7:00 pm

  8. Did see it a few years ago thanks to Eberts 4 star rating. I also loved it, it’s a great movie.

    And yeah, it’s not easy to make a movie in such a limited setting interesting for 2 hours. But if done right, you can make a very intense and special movie.

    Now, if only they would make a similar movie but instead of a train, they use a bus. And it can’t go slower because there’s a bomb. Mmm…


    February 23, 2014 at 1:46 am

    • Haha, no, I’d rather not see a remake. (I think there was a remake of some sort of this not too long ago, but I haven’t watched it.) This movie holds up so well as it is. The original version. It’s just a shame tha not more people have seen it.


      June 10, 2014 at 9:54 pm

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