Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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Runaway Train (1985)

Do adventure stories get any better than this? Nah. The emphasis here is on the word story. Think back to your high school days when your English teacher tried to explain the meaning of “conflict” to you. The engine that powered a short story was a battle of man-against-nature, man-against-machine, man-against-man, man-against-himself. If these conflicts truly drive a narrative, then Runaway Train runs as relentlessly on all cylinders as the throttled-down locomotive that gives the movie its title.

From the opening shots of the film—cutting from the maximum security prison of Stonehaven (what a name!) locked in the no-man’s land of an Alaskan winter, to a full-scale riot within Stonehaven’s walls—the viewer knows it’s too late to go for the popcorn. Konchalovsky is in control. He sets the stage better in the first ten minutes than other directors do by the time the closing credits roll. The warden strides through the burning refuse of the riot, calmly informing the prisoners that they’re scum and will remain scum. Our first sight of Jon Voight—the prisoner who’s been welded into his cell for three years—has him doing push-ups in the darkness, more like a machine than a human being. Manny, the young punk who idolizes Voight, begins a non-stop marathon of nervous hyperactivity that would exhaust Rick Hansen.

A lesser storyteller would have stopped here and would rely on hammering the viewer into his seat with an avalanche of special effects and gut-wrenching violence. And occasionally, that kind of ride is worth it—I do recall applauding Sigourney Weaver at the end of Aliens. But a great story gives us more than an adrenaline rush. Konchalovsky gives us The Train.

The Train is alive. The Train is an actors’ stage barrelling seventy miles an hour into the Twilight Zone. The Train is a metaphor for heroism, savagery, freedom, and futility. Brilliant direction and cinematography, combined with an eerie understated musical score turn a locomotive into an Academy Award contender. The last time I can remember seeing such an uncanny metamorphosis was in William Friedkin’s underrated Sorcerer—a film which itself mirrors Runaway Train.

A word about the human performances. Superb. Perhaps the best tribute we can give to an actor is to say that he or she is virtually unrecognizable in the role they play. A classic example would be Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Jon Voight manages a similar disappearing act in Runaway Train. Voight’s “If you could do this One Little Thing….” Soliloquy ranks up there with Brando’s “I coulda bin a contender….” As for the players, like Eric Roberts and John P. Ryan, whose roles serve as foils to Voight’s, all are uniformly fine.

Earlier, I mentioned travelling into the Twilight Zone. This is exactly where Runaway Train ends. It’s fitting that the screenplay should have originated with the great Japanese director Akira Kurasawa. In many of Kurasawa’s films there comes a moment when events push human beings beyond the point where a rational reaction is possible. In those moments, the filmmaker leaves us with images that literally haunt the mind. The closing shot of Runaway Train is astounding, impossible to watch without “Attended or alone,/ Without a tighter breathing,/ And zero at the bone.”

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Yeah, still kicks serious ass.

For some perspective on storytelling & moviemaking, try watching Runaway Train and Snowpiercer (2013) back-to-back. The former is a tall tale with mythic punch and characters that matter; the latter is an academic conceit tarted up with blood & gore. And if we’re talking trains, there’s no question whatsoever which one’s scarier. Snowpiercer has a prop; Konchalovsky’s train is Moby Dick.

One thing to which I paid a lot more attention on my last viewing of Runaway Train was the driving steampunked musical score by Trevor Jones. Jones also did fine work in The Last of the Mohicans, Richard III, and Dark City.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama, Action
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Actors: John Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay
Year: 1985
Original Review: June 1987



No one who has read my columns will be surprised to see this website. Robert Ebert was always my favourite movie critic. I continue to read his reviews. The most recent one I looked at was for the mediocre James Bond picture, For Your Eyes Only. As usual, Ebert nailed everything that was wrong with the picture without sounding nasty or cynical. This didn’t work, he says, and this is why. With a touch of humour. What more could a reader want? I’d guess that a part of Ebert’s skill in writing came from his solid newspaper background, initially as a sportswriter. Good journalism speaks to a wide audience with a healthy clarity of presentation and non-condescending tone. Ebert’s website features his reviews (particularyl his Great Films reviews, which I keep going back to), blogs by both Ebert and his wife Chaz, a Festival & Awards section, Interviews by Ebert, an Ebert bookstore, reviews from around the world, and a mountain of valuable miscellaneous links. Still not satisfied? For $20 US you can also join the Ebert Club for access to other goodies.

Films Worth Talking About:

A Passage to India, The Official Story, Vagabonde, Hail Mary, Brazil, Witness, Lost in America, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Colonel Redl, When Father Was Away on Business, Subway, Ran, Cocoon, Pale Rider, St. Elmo’s Fire, Back to the Future, After Hours, My Beautiful Laundrette, My Life as a Dog, Ginger & Fred, Come and See, Desperately Seeking Susan, Dreamchild, Prizzi’s Honor, The Color Purple, Shoah, Sweet Dreams

The Bigger Picture

Films: The General (1926); Emperor of the North (1973); Hell on Wheels (TV Series, 2011)

Books: Pierre Berton—The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881 & The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885; Barrie Sanford—McCulloch’s Wonder

The Word on the Street

Has John Voight ever been better? No. Or Eric Roberts? No. And have you ever seen a more perfect, perfect ending? No.” 


Often called an intellectual action picture, it’s more of an existential one, i.e. man versus an indifferent/hostile universe.”

Jaime N. Christley

[The train] is nothing more than cold, dull iron, and we are all aboard, bound for the end of the line. The musical score couldn’t be more apt — sustained, low, rumbling, elephantine — a massive and powerful and inexorable chord….This is lean, mean action all the way….And that “little biddy spot” monologue Voight has halfway through the film is really breathtaking. He should have won an Oscar for that alone.”


The next time I criticise an action movie for being brainless, only to be met by the response of ‘well, it is an action movie!’, I’ll refer them to Runaway Train,” [


I say YEAH!”