At the beginning of "Runaway Train," Manny (Jon Voight), a dangerous prisoner in solitary for three years, gets sprung by a court order. The warden threatens to get a stay of that order, which will keep him welded in his cell for another nine months, but that's water off a duck's back for Manny: He knows his Nietzsche. Or at least the Brooklyn translation of it. "What duzzint kill me makes me stronguh," he says.
"Runaway Train" isn't just bad -- it's bodaciously bad, grotesquely overblown, lurid in its emotion, big ideas on its brain. And anyone with a taste for camp will have a glorious good time.
Manny, who has escaped twice already from this maximum-security pen in whitest Alaska, escapes again -- this time with an acolyte, Buck (Eric Roberts), a foul-mouthed, hyperactive southerner whom Manny calls "youngstuh." Together they trek across the 30-below-zero arctic wastes, finding refuge in a train. Or, more precisely, a Metaphor (for, uh, the human spirit). When the engineer has a heart attack and drops off, the Metaphor (four locomotives coupled together) becomes a "runaway," accelerating uncontrollably, impervious to the ministrations of God or man.
While Manny and Buck try to figure out how to get off the Metaphor without breaking their necks, the warden (John P. Ryan) tries to figure out how to get on; and the railroad officals (including a droll Kenneth McMillan) try to figure out how to stop the thing. Halfway through, the Cannonball Cons are joined by Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), an engineer who has been napping through it all in the back of the train.
Expatriate Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky ("Siberiade") has an eye for composition -- there's a grand purity to the spare black, white and deep green of the sooty locomotives barreling across the pine-lined tundra. While the script (by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker) is full of cloddish exposition and obvious intercutting, and the score (by Trevor Jones) is equally obvious and bombastic, the production values are magnificent for such a low-budget epic, particularly the stunts and miniature work (that's not a real train crashing into a real caboose, but you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference).
But the quality of the production isn't exactly what grabs your eye first. It's hard to capture in words the performing style that pervades "Runaway Train," for it isn't just overacting. Perhaps uberacting. From the outset, you're watching human beings in meltdown.
Voight, whose eyes are blindered by waxy scars, his mouth framed by a trestle of Fu Manchu mustache, plays with an insane glee -- he's in some supercharged actor's paradise, completely over the top, his eyes burning with a mystical fire, his clenched teeth a barbecue grill for his lines. He's a goofy philosopher-bully, stamping on the follies of mankind. When Sara turns to Buck and says, "Hold me, I don't want to die alone," Voight snorts, "Ha! We all die alone!" And when she calls him an animal, he wheels, grinning widely, and says, "No, worse! Human! HUMAN!"
Presented with Voight's lead, Roberts and De Mornay have no choice but to follow, which they do all too willingly. Bellowing thickly, bobbing his head like a rooster on the prowl, Roberts goes two hours on the edge of mania -- he has a habit of pointing his finger, a gesture that has never seemed more superfluous. De Mornay can't make Sara wide-eyed enough (she seems to want to peel the lids back into her skull), and she does a lot of shrieking. But you can't blame her. No one wants to follow an animal act.
No, worse. Human.
Runaway Train, at area theaters, is rated R, and contains considerable profanity, graphic violence and sexual themes.