Manny (Jon Voight) is one of the toughest criminals in the Alaskan Stonehaven prison, as made clear by the fact that he has been welded into his cell for the past three years on the orders of the warden, Ranken (John P. Ryan). But now the warden is on television admitting that Manny's appeal against his treatment has been successful, an announcement that is broadcast on the prison tannoy after one young convict, Buck (Eric Roberts) convinces the man in charge of it to do so. A riot ensues, but Ranken has his own ideas about how to deal with this troublemaker even as Manny devises a way out for good...
A favourite of Marlon Brando thanks to Voight's powerhouse performing, Runaway Train was one of the few films produced by Cannon during the eighties - and there were quite a lot - to receive much critical success. Perhaps this was down to the credibility of being based on an abandoned project by Akira Kurosawa no less, here adapted by a team of writers including crime author and actor Edward Bunker, best known by movie buffs for writing Dustin Hoffman's cult drama Straight Time and appearing as Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs.
With names like those involved, it's not surprising that what emerged under Russian Andrei Konchalovsky's direction should be a heady brew of machismo, and many of the cast seemed happy with the delicious taste of scenery that they insisted on chewing. First we have to get Manny out of the prison and into that metaphor, so after a scene that makes it plain that the unscrupulous Ranken is setting him up to be murdered by convicts in the warden's pay, while also showing just how tough Manny can be in a fight, our anti-hero puts his schemes into action. This he does with the assistance of boxer Buck, who smuggles him into the yard in a laundry basket.
Yet Buck is not satisfied with that, and being something of a fan of this he-man prisoner persuades Manny to allow him to tag along. Well, he doesn't so much persuade him as go along anyway and soon they have escaped through the sewer system and out into a freezing river: this is the Alaskan landscape in the middle of winter after all. Presently they arrive at a railway station and climb aboard an empty locomotive, but here is where the plot contrivances strain credibility as once the vehicle's journey is under way, the driver has a heart attack and falls off the engine, leaving the convicts in, yes, a runaway train.
They don't cotton on immediately, but when the train smashes through a carriage or two that happen to be in the way they get a pretty good idea of what's up. Meanwhile in the nerve centre of the rail network, they are beginning to panic as they cannot crash the train safely due to someone spotting three people aboard. That's right, three - rail worker Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) is also there, having fallen alseep earlier and now can take care of the exposition needed to tell the other two exactly why they cannot stop. We're supposed to accept that the train and Manny are pretty much one and the same, you can either join him on the tracks to oblivion or jump off. Or he can let you off. Or something, it's not a very solid comparison, but the shots of them hurtling through the snowbound mountains and forests make up for the thematic deficiencies as you're watching. Runaway Train has a lot more in common with the disaster movies of the previous decade than it might care to admit, and even if Voight does get dialogue that makes him sound like Mr. T, you can't deny it commands the attention in its pretentious and macho fashion. Music by Trevor Jones.