Peter Hoskin

Climb aboard the runaway train

Climb aboard the runaway train
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Brother, can you spare me a train? Or maybe just a Pullman carriage or two? There are so many brilliant films set on trains that I’d love to screen some of them in loco locomotive, as it were. Shanghai Express (1932), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Narrow Margin (1950), Night Train (1959)… I’ll stop there. Just grab a ticket and scramble aboard.

Andrey Konchalovsky’s 1985 film Runaway Train, which has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD, would certainly be included on the programme. It has the qualities of other rail-bound films: the heavy sense of momentum, the restrictiveness of the carriages, and so on. But it’s several times gruffer than the rest. Here, two sweary, lairy convicts break out of a maximum security prison in Alaska, only to come up against countless dangerous ‘and then’s. And then they board a train, and then the engineer dies of a heart attack, and then the brakes fail, and then they collide with another train, and then a helicopter, a chemical plant and severed fingers. The Chattanooga Choo Choo this ain’t.

What prevents this ride from hurtling over the top is Konchalovsky’s general commitment to realism. The original story was inspired by a work of journalism. The train, although it’s sometimes a model, always looks as though it weighs 100 icy tonnes. And the lead performance, by Jon Voigt, is straight out of a prison yard. This, you’re convinced, is a man on the edge of madness — mad things happen to him.