Trains used to be a major means of travel in America, as well as a staple setting for movies — Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, Silver Streak (Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor) and Twentieth Century (Carole Lombard, John Barrymore), to name only a few. We don’t ride the rails too much over here, but the Iron Horse can still provide good fodder for the movies, like the recent Girl on a Train.
As fortune (and my movie queue would have it), two good and very different kinds of films about trains have just come out on home video — the first, a 1985 entry with three Oscar nods in tow; the other, a 2016 release from South Korea. In Runaway Train, Jon Voight and Eric Roberts break out of prison in Alaska and hop the wrong locomotive. In Train to Busan, luckless passengers share cars and meals with zombies.
Based on Akira Kurosawa’s story, with a screenplay co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and novelist Paul Zindel, Runaway Train has pedigree to spare. Noted Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky does his source material proud, as do Voight and Roberts, both Oscar-nominated for their performances.
Voight plays Manny, a legendary lifer respected by his peers because he refused to kowtow to brutal Warden Ranken. Roberts is Buck, a prison newbie who idolizes Manny and goes along when Manny makes his break. Unlike most prison films, little time is spent on the actual escape. The point is to get the men on the runaway train.
More than halfway through, Manny and Buck are joined by Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, Risky Business), an engineer’s assistant who, like them, is abandoned to her fate after the driver dies of a heart attack. As the train barrels over frozen Alaskan wasteland, harried officials at headquarters struggle to avoid disaster after disaster. Not about to lose a favorite punching bag, the vengeful warden is also in pursuit.
Despite its authentic brutality, grittiness and violence, Runaway Train reflects Kurosawa’s trademark humanity, which suffuses the iconic Japanese director’s films. Manny and Buck may seem little more than brutes at first, but each undergoes a redemption of sorts as the train rushes along the rails. Konchalovsky brilliantly melds action to drama without stooping to sentimentality. The ending is a vivid cinematic picture-symbol of a man triumphing over himself and the mechanistic society that produced him.
In 2010’s Unstoppable (director Tony Scott’s last film), Denzel Washington and Chris Pine also struggle to stop a runaway train. It’s a terrific action film with lots of suspense and derring-do. Compared to its 1985 predecessor, though, Unstoppable is merely a solid popcorn flick.
Which brings us to South Korean director Sang-ho Yeon’s debut live-action film Train to Busan, which could have been titled Zombies on a Train. It’s not high art or Oscar material, but it is a very effective zombie thriller, distinguished from usual dross by the unusual setting on a crowded commuter train.
After a clever opening sequence unlike any other zombie feature I’ve ever seen, a group of passengers set out on what will be the ride of their lives — and deaths. The protagonist is a preoccupied businessman taking his young daughter back to his estranged wife in Busan. Others aboard are a burly man and his very pregnant wife, two elderly sisters, a high school sports team, and a ruthless corporate executive.
Just before the train starts, a young woman leaps on, thrashing in contortions as black veins snake up her legs and her eyes grow opaque. A stewardess unwittingly lends more than a helping hand, and soon the car is roiling and moiling with the chomping dead.
Moving from car to car, station to station, and tunnel to tunnel, struggling survivors and ravenous pursuers make for a lively fright fest that may satisfy ardent fans of The Walking Dead. Special effects are impressive, borrowing more from World War Z than other such fare, recalling 2013’s vaguely similar Snowpiercer, also from South Korea.
The ending smacks a bit of sentimentality (where’s godfather George A. Romero when we need him?), but overall Train to Busan delivers the goods in bites and pieces.
Naturally, an English-language version is already in the works. Train to Jax, perhaps?