Andrei Konchalovsky is one of cinema’s true enigmas. Loosely descended from Tolstoy and born into tsarist nobility in 1937, he has the genetic make-up of a genius, and once displayed all the signs, but to look back upon his filmography is like staring at a jigsaw with all the wrong pieces. He has disassembled the Soviet psyche and collaborated with Andrei Tarkovsky over the years, but in Runaway Train (1986) there’s a joyous lunacy unleashed at full force. It’s also one of his most straightforward films, as convicts Oscar ‘Manny’ Manheim (Jon Voight) and Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) attempt a gutsy jailbreak.
Manheim has been sealed off in solitary for three months, before finally winning a court case which will allow him to re-enter the main prison. Of course, these three months have simply given him the time to plan his escape. McGeehy immediately becomes his faithful lapdog, ensorcelled by Manheim’s wild rebelliousness, and as a viewer it’s easy to get on board too as the random violence, overblown dialogue and moments of slapstick prove irresistible – utterly absorbing and perfectly paced. Manheim and McGeehy drift into a landscape blanketed in snow, pursued by the sadistic Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), and flee on a local train. Soon, however, they’re heading to their doom with no driver and no brakes.
For its edge, there’s a dystopian grubbiness to Runaway Train: the prison is all rusted bars and dingy corridors while everything seems to creak and crank as if made from ancient metal. Indoor shots are dark and gloomy, jarring against the snowy mountaintops that loom over the onrushing train. This aesthetic takes the film away from an ordinary great escape jolly and gives it much deeper artistry; and it’s only after two or three viewings that you realise the deliberateness of the camera positions. In a way, the madness of the plot actually deflects attention away from this craft and makes the film appear slighter than it really is, but come the end Konchalovsky magnificently entwines his free-rolling storyline with his quirky style.
The true winning formula, however, is found in Voight and Roberts’ double-act. Their eccentric characters are funny, violent and heartwarming all at the same time, where we root for them despite the fact that they’re basically psychopaths. The dialogue is airy, zip-line fast and plain daft, at once taking itself lightly with a strong underlying metaphor: the search for freedom is constantly absurd, fraught with unknown danger and will certainly not guarantee salvation. It seems that for all Konchalovsky was keen to experiment with the funnier side of Runaway Train, he couldn’t resist assembling a desirably profound ideological core.