Wednesday, September 16, 2015

183. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s US film “Runaway Train” (1985): An unusual Hollywood film that intensely deals with philosophy and the choices one makes in life

Lady Anne:  “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity” 
King Richard: “But I know none, therefore am no beast.”

              --a conversation from Shakespeare’s Richard III, 
                 appearing as an end-quote in Runaway Train

Runaway Train is a remarkable work from Hollywood.  The film was both a box office success and a critically acclaimed film.

It is directed by the Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky’s classmate in film school Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky.  Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky was no ordinary classmate of the legendary Tarkovsky—he co-scripted as many as 6 screenplays with Tarkovsky, in including two classics of world cinema directed by Tarkovsky:  Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). He even acted in the former.

But Runaway Train’s original script was sculpted by another giant of cinema, Japan’s maestro Akira Kurosawa.  Kurosawa  unfortunately could never make this film of his dreams—most of Kurosawa’s films are based on original screenplays written by others. Therefore, Runaway Train is no ordinary action film or a disaster film or a prison escape film—it is much, much more--- visually, artistically, and conceptually, hiding in the garb of an action film possibly for enabling Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky to make an artistically satisfying film in a commercial world.  

Manny (Jon Voight, right) and Buck (Eric Roberts) choose the train to board

Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky serves you cinema that is often deceptive and can confound an average viewer until the end quote in some of his of his films. These films shake the viewer up to re-assess what one had just seen in the light of the carefully picked end-quote. Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky did just that with another Hollywood film he directed, the superb Shy People (1987), which won Barbara Hershey a richly deserved best actress award at Cannes. (Shy People also had an enigmatic end-quote, this time from the Bible.) Runaway Train combines the best elements of Hollywood, Russian and Asian cinema, without appearing to do so. Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, himself a very good screenplay writer, employed several  co-screenplay writers to come up with a script that was acceptable.

The title Runaway Train encapsulates the story of the film. It is supposed to give you edge of the seat entertainment ending in an inevitable disaster, with a hero emerging victorious, if one went by traditional Hollywood films that have entertained millions all over the world. With Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, the inevitable crash is virtual, in the viewer’s mind, not shown on screen. Further, the hero is not a hero, he is an anti-hero, but “not a beast” as Richard III of Shakespeare avers. Most of all, the train is not a regular train, but four locomotives linked to each other. The passengers are four human beings, all different in attitudes and choices they make: two escaped convicts Manny and young Buck (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, respectively), one young lady railway worker Sara (Rebecca de Mornay), who had dozed off in one of the engines after doing some routine work, and a psychotic prison warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who climbs down from a police helicopter on to the “runaway train” to capture Manny the prison inmate he hates to the core of his body and soul and wishes to kill personally after he has escaped three times from his maximum security prison. Ranken even mutters from the helicopter “God don’t kill him (referring to Manny). Let me do it.” Thus, four vastly different individuals are brought together by fate and seem to be headed for their inevitable death. Those who have seen the movie will know who survives and who does not.

Visual strength: The monster "Runaway Train"  carries the remains of
a smashed caboose of another train in front

What is the Russian element in the tale? The snow and the freezing temperatures? For those familiar with Russian literature and cinema, it would be the plight of the prisoners in the maximum security prison in Alaska.  They have a warden who publicly derides his incarcerated prisoners by espousing his incredible twisted point of view “Let me tell you where you assholes stand. First there's God, then the warden, then my guards, then the dogs out there in the kennel, and finally, you. Pieces of human waste. No good to yourselves or anybody else.” And like most Russian literature and cinema, God is referred to and respected by this devilish warden at least twice (referred earlier) in the film. Recent Russian cinema of Andrei Zvyagintsev, specifically Leviathan (2014), often depicts evil men showing respect for God as is the case with the warden in Runaway Train.

Pitted against this evil warden is Manny, a safecracker, who has escaped twice from this maximum security prison, and recaptured twice. (In Kurosawa’s original tale, he was a rapist but Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky felt rapists are rarely treated as heroes by co-prisoners while Manny is indeed treated as a hero).  The evil Warden welds his prison door so that he cannot escape a third time, leading to a legal appeal that Manny wins after nine months allowing his free movement within the prison. The legal victory for Manny is where the film’s narrative begins.

The penultimate scene taken sideways as the locomotive hurtles onward,
with Manny on top of it

And what is the typical Asian Kurosawa moment in the Runaway Train? For this critic it is the advice of Manny to young Buck on how he should lead his life after escaping from prison. He provides the young man oriental wisdom “I'll tell you what you gonna do. You gonna get a job. That's what you gonna do. You're gonna get a little job. Some job a convict can get, like scraping off trays in a cafeteria. Or cleaning out toilets. And you're gonna hold onto that job like gold. Because it is gold. Let me tell you, that is gold. You listenin' to me? And when that man walks in at the end of the day. And he comes to see how you done, you ain't gonna look in his eyes. You gonna look at the floor. Because you don't want to see that fear in his eyes when you jump up and grab his face, and slam him to the floor, and make him scream and cry for his life. So you look right at the floor.  Pay attention to what I'm sayin', motherfucker! And then he's gonna look around the room - see how you done. And he's gonna say "Oh, you missed a little spot over there. Jeez, you didn't get this one here. What about this little bitty spot?" And you're gonna suck all that pain inside you, and you're gonna clean that spot. And you're gonna clean that spot. Until you get that shiny clean. And on Friday, you pick up your paycheck. And if you could do that, if you could do that, you could be president of Chase Manhattan... corporations! If you could do that.”

And how does Buck respond to the good advice? Buck says “Not me, man! I wouldn't do that kind of shit. I'd rather be in fuckin' jail.”

The philosophic response of Manny to that outburst is even more fascinating. “More's the pity, youngster. More's the pity,” observes Manny.

Buck bullied by Manny to cross over to the locomotive in front,
under dangerous conditions

When Manny bullies young Buck to risk his life to cross over to the lead locomotive, the lady railway worker Sara who almost got raped by Buck, yells at Manny in Buck’s defense: “You're an animal!” Manny’s response is once again philosophic: “No, worse! Human. Human!”

This sequence ought to be re-assessed by the viewer in the context of the Shakespeare end-quote in the film. Is Manny a beast, a seasoned convict, or a mere human like any one of us? And who is the “beast” in the film? The lawman warden Rankin?

Warden Rankin (John P Ryan) threatens a railway employee

Here’s another amazing interaction between the warden and Manny towards the end of the film:

        Rankin: Push the button. We're on a dead-end siding. We're gonna crash in five minutes.
        Manny: Then we'll have a nice, five-minute ride together.
        Rankin: You think you're a hero, huh? Shit. You're scum
        Manny: We're both scum, brother.

Inspector Javert thought Jean Valjean was also scum in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. But Manny of Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky/Kurosawa admits he is scum too. Eventually in the film, he proves to be a scum who can be human, in a positive sense.

"Win, lose, what's the difference?"

The film can also be perceived as an existential film with amazing dialogues. Sara, on realizing that they are going to die, asks of young Buck, who had wanted to rape her earlier, to hold her as she does not want to die alone. Buck assures her “We gonna be all right” to which Sara weakly replies, “Yeah.” Buck re-assures her “We gonna be fine...” And Manny who had been hearing the dialogue between the two, pipes in with a wet blanket realist comment:  “Ha,ha. We all die alone.” Manny has been a loner in life and in death and is a realist. He wanted to escape the prison alone; only young Buck joined Manny uninvited. We are all drawn into an existential world of Manny who after years in prison can wistfully say “Win, lose, what's the difference?”  He is not afraid to die because he is free, finally out of prison, free of the Rankins of this world.

Runaway Train is an amazing film and can easily be recognized as one if one pays attention to the spoken and written words.  But more importantly, it is a visual film to be savoured by the eye of viewer. There are trains that crawl in the film and trains that hurtle. There are locomotives that have no visible worlds written and seem like shrouded grey coffins on wheels. The choice of Manny to pick the most ominous and depressing looking locomotive in the railway yard fits in so well with the larger story. The final visual of Manny on top of the locomotive resembles a visual cross. The final sequence has Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major playing on the soundtrack, which reaffirms Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s intentional visual metaphor of the end. One of the music composers of this film, Trevor Jones, went on to compose the music of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) which had music that complemented visuals of speed as he did previously for Runaway Train.

Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) "Hold me. I don't want to die alone"

"We all die alone"

Runaway Train won Jon Voight a Golden Globe for Best Actor and an Oscar nomination. Eric Roberts was also nominated for his performance as young Buck, in the supporting actor category along with a Oscar nomination for best editing. Unfortunately, John P. Ryan who played the unforgettable warden Rankin never won accolades for his superb performance (as he was overlooked in his smaller and negative role in the 1971 film The Missouri Breaks).

Today, Andrei  Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky is back in Russia making significant films such as The Postman’s White Nights (2014), after an erratic professional period in the US that produced both exemplary and forgettable works.

P.S. Andrei  Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train and Shy People and Andrei  Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan are all on the author’s top 100 films listMr Konchalovsky is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers