50 Movies for 50 States: Week Two – Alaska, Film – Runaway Train

The United States has been well represented in the world of cinema. Still, while most people are familiar with Woody Allen’s New York, Tarantino’s Los Angeles or John Water’s Baltimore, Maryland, what about the not-so-familiar cracks and corners of the country?  Why can’t we have a crime thriller set in Amish country, a steamy psychological drama take place in Baton Rouge or a gross-out comedy with Rhode Island as its backdrop?

Well, we can. To prove it, I’m going from Alabama to Wyoming — each week choosing one film to represent each of the 50 U.S. states. The only criteria is that each movie is something I’ve never seen before. That should eliminate some of the more obvious choices, good films as they may be, allowing me to bring to the forefront some more obscure choices, oddities and forgotten classics alike.

Time for a road trip across the good ol’ U.S.A., one movie at a time.

Week Two — Alaska

Runaway Train, 1985, director Andrei Konchalovsky, writers Ryuzo Kikushima (story), Hideo Oguni (story), Djordje Milicevic, Edward Bunker, Paul Zindel, based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, with Rebecca De Mornay, Eric Roberts, Jon Voight

A movie like Runaway Train isn’t the type of film that needs to rely on a lot of surprises to be effective. It’s like Snakes on a Plane — based on the title alone, you know where it’s headed with its plot and, really, it just needs to deliver. Yet, only a few minutes into the opening credits of 1985’s Runaway Train, it drops an unexpected bit of information by revealing that it is based on a screenplay by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. What? Kurosawa, famous for his samurai epics, wrote a movie about two escaped convicts trapped on a speeding locomotive with no engineer, headed on a one-way trip to nowheresville? Multi-Academy Award winning Akira Kurosawa — of Seven Samurai, Magnificent Seven — wrote the screenplay to what, on-the-surface, appears to be just another silly genre flick? Kurosawa was not your typical genre filmmaker — but then again, Runaway Train is not your typical genre flick. It’s a fucking awesome genre flick.

Runaway Train opens in a prison in the frozen wasteland which is our 49th state. We meet Buck, played by Julia Roberts’ less-talented brother Eric Roberts, and Bob Rafelson regular John Ryan as iron-fisted Associate Warden Ranken. Almost immediately, we learn that a judge has ordered Ranken to release Oscar “Manny” Manheim, murderer and all-around nasty dude, from solitary confinement. Manny is played by Jon Voight, wearing prosthetic teeth and gimmicks to make it  look like his nose is broken and speaking with a thick New Yawk accent. Voight is playing against type in what is an Academy-award winning performance (Roberts was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, while the film was nominated for Best Editing.) Manny is kind of the Ulysses Grant to Buck’s Robert E. Lee. While Manny is straight outta Brooklyn, Buck is straight outta the boondocks, speaking in a heavy Southern drawl and appearing to have borderline mental retardation — he says “sheeeit” a lot.

The warden is aware that, as soon as he releases Manny from solitary, Manny’s going to try to escape. Manny has done it before. In a visceral and gory scene, Manny is attacked by another inmate who just happens to be armed with a knife. It’s no stretch to imagine Ranken gave the inmate that knife. Clearly, Ranken wants to see Manny dead. Before that can happen, Manny makes his escape through the sewers. Buck, who aids him in escaping, decides to tag along. Manny begrudgingly allows it  — maybe he thinks Buck, portrayed as a skilled boxer, could be useful as muscle — but Manny probably winds up regretting his decision as Buck almost immediately starts complaining about everything. The sewer stinks. It’s cold outside. Of course it’s cold. It’s Alaska, Buck. Buck up.

Manny’s escape plan involves hitching a train, which will speed across the bitter snow-covered tundra toward freedom (Canada?). His plan goes awry when the conductor of the train suffers a heart-attack (The odds!) leaving no one in control of the mechanized death machine. One more thing, before the conductor dies, he does something which causes the brakes of the train to burn off — giving us our titular runaway train.

The fun of Runaway Train is not just trying to see how Buck and Manny try to escape their certain doomed fate but also how they deal with each other. It’s a sort-of Lifeboat situation with two men, the very definition of an odd couple, being forced to deal with each other in a very cramped space. Did I mention there’s one more passenger on the train? That would be Rebecca De Mornay, who plays Sara, a railroad worker aboard the train who was sleeping when the conductor died. This was De Mornay’s second or third film role and she’s cute in pigtails and freckles. So cute, I guess, that her presence brings out the misogyny in some of the railroad staff who are observing this disaster unfold (“Of all the people to be on board, it had to be a woman!”) The irony being that Sara is the only person on board the train who might know how to stop it.

Voight, Roberts and De Mornay ham it up like Nicholas Cage on a crack binge (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans) being attacked by a swarm bees (The Wicker Man) or watching a snuff film (8 Millimeter). For the type of movie that this is, however, taking place under some very extraordinary, pretty much unbelievable circumstances, it works. The only resulting downside to the overacting is that my wife will eventually tire of my endless Manny and Buck imitations. Did I mention that the film’s full of great lines? Some of which I imagine could have been lifted right from Kurosawa’s script, and — Voight and Ryan especially — chews them up and spits them out like fiery bullets. One of my favorites comes from the warden, describing to the prisoners the pecking order of the prison.

“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, then finally you, pieces of human waste. No good to yourselves or anybody else.”

I love it. Ryan’s got another one — speaking in an aside about Manny.

“God, don’t kill him. Let me do it.”

I laughed out loud.

As for the location, well — I’ll just say this. You’ve got to be a little crazy to film a movie in Alaska, in the freezing cold, on real trains. With that combination of elements, you’re asking for something to go wrong. Something did go terribly wrong, as a stunt pilot named Rick Holley was killed in a helicopter crash during filming. His death is acknowledged in the film’s credits. With this in mind, I wonder how important the location of Alaska is to Runaway Train. Sure, the numerous shots of the train barreling across miles of untouched nature are effective in reminding you that the protagonists are in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention they also give you a sense of perspective — something about the frailty of human life, the whole notion of “we’re just specks of dust on this big crazy planet.” Alaska is a lonely place. An interesting fact that I learned while working as a newspaper reporter is that Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the United States. Still, aren’t there other areas of the country that could have served as an equally effective backdrop to this tale? Anywhere in the Great Plains maybe? It’s possible I’m just underestimating how big of a state Alaska is. It’s a whole lot of nothing. Did I mention it’s cold? That’s something I felt should have played a lot more into the story. You never really get the sense of danger surrounding our “heroes,” the idea that even if they do escape the train, they’re most likely going to die of exposure.

Really, the setting of Alaska is not all that crucial to Runaway Train’s plot. In Kurosawa’s script, the story took place in New York. The Alaskan government wooed Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky into filming the movie in their state — originally Montana had been considered for the movie’s location. The Alaskan government’s stance on film-making has apparently changed, as Alaska currently is one of only a handful of states that does not offer any sort of incentives to filmmakers to shoot there. The recent film 30 Days of Night, which is supposed to take place in Alaska, was actually filmed in New Zealand.

So why choose Runaway Train for this project of mine? No other reason, other than it’s a kick-ass film, and — for such a big state — there’s not a whole lot of movies to choose from.

Honorable mentions this week include 2007’s Into the Wild and 1983’s Never Cry Wolf. Never Cry Wolf, I feel, deserves special mention. It’s a documentary-style film produced by Disney about a scientist studying the wolf and caribou populations in northern Alaska. It was released at a time when Disney was attempting to move into more adult fare and is extremely well done, capturing the barrenness of Alaska better than any other film I’ve seen. Another film to check out is Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a documentary about a man living with and studying grizzly bears in Alaska who doesn’t realize the danger of what he’s doing until he winds up at the bottom of a bear’s stomach. It’s poignant and unbelievably disturbing.

Next week — Arizona, my dad’s favorite state.

YouTube links:


2 responses to “50 Movies for 50 States: Week Two – Alaska, Film – Runaway Train

  1. those one-sheets are idiotic. 1985 indeed! and i disagree – eric roberts IS the talented sibling in that family.


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