Suspense and action movies fall into all kinds of strange little subcategories. Even though we already have a list of the Top 10 Trains in Movies, I thought it would be fun to take a look at a more specific kind of movie. There’s not a lot of them, so it’s padded a bit to include some that have just one memorable scene, but here’s my list of the Top 10 Runaway Train Movies, inspired by the film that’s currently sitting at #10. If you’d like to contribute a Top 10 list to Scene-Stealers, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past weekend, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine did great box office and got good critical notices in director Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable.” With its characters trying to stop a cargo load of massively powerful explosives hurtling towards a major metropolitan area, the movie was has been referred to as a ‘runaway train’ movie—which is a pretty specific, if not tiny, genre of films. Below are some other movies that use the same ‘unstoppable’ premise to keep audiences on the edge of their seat.
A B-movie thriller from 1974 about a hijacked subway train called “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” was remade last year by Scott and co-starred Washington as well. Both versions featured a runaway train towards the finale, but the low-budget original has a leg up on Scott’s manic remake—in part because it has a better feel for the people of New York City. Scott’s version is full of manic editing and a wholly unbelievable and hammy performance from ‘villain’ John Travolta, who can’t seem to get out of “Battlefield Earth” mode.
Speaking of Travolta’s unconvincing bad guys, “Broken Arrow” is a 1996 movie that requires Travolta to be evil again, fighting it out this time with fellow military pilot Christian Slater. His plan is to double-cross Slater, kill him, steal some Stealth bomber explosives, and sell them to bad guys who want to blackmail the government. Famed Hong Kong action director John Woo was saddled with every cliché in the book in his second American film, but still manages some suspenseful moments as a burning train carrying a warhead ignites just after good-guy Slater leaps to safety.
“Money Train,” a 1995 action comedy that tried to capitalize on the chemistry between “White Men Can’t Jump” costars Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, ends with a protracted sequence of a runaway subway train so it earns its spot. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is pretty terrible. Snipes and Harrelson are foster brothers who also happen to be cops. When Harrelson, deeply in debt from gambling, decides to rob the ‘money’ train with the day’s fares, Snipes has to stop him. At the end, they both work together to save the passengers on the speeding train and miraculously jump to safety. Is there a pattern forming?
In 1927, silent film comedian Buster Keaton (born in Iola, Kan.) directed and starred in the most amazing train movie ever, “The General.” For the elaborate production, which featured over 500 extras, he ran a real locomotive across a collapsing bridge. Keaton, known as a fearless and straight-faced acrobat, performed some of the most dangerous stunts ever filmed in “The General,” regularly jumping between moving cars at high speeds, but since “The General” doesn’t technically use the ‘runaway train’ device, it shouldn’t really be on this list. (Did I mention it’s still the most amazing train movie ever, hands down?)
“Spider-Man 2” only has one runaway train sequence as well, but it’s one of the best scenes in a movie chock full of them. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has spent the better part of the film taking abuse from every angle as he struggles with his identity as the savior of New York. Director Sam Raimi plays up the classic ‘menace vs. hero’ Spider-Man conflict, but it isn’t until the scene where Parker almost kills himself to stop a runaway subway train that he finally realizes how much he is appreciated. After saving a subway full of passengers from certain death, he passes out from the strain. The passengers silently bring him into the car, over their heads, arms outstretched Christ-like, and lay him down gently on the floor. His mask is off. “He’s … just a kid,” one says. It’s an incredibly moving moment, and to follow such a thrilling rescue and a spectacular fight sequence with Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), it’s a minor feat that it works so well.
The poster for “Silver Streak” promised “The most hilarious suspense ride of your life!” Seeing as how it was the first and best collaboration between Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, that statement was probably true for many of the people who saw it back then in the theaters. It’s still very funny, if not all that thrilling, and most of it takes place on a cross-country train ride. Mild-mannered Wilder is caught up in a murder mystery , gets some assistance from Pryor the petty thief, and the entire thing ends with that old reliable of devices—the runaway train sequence. Enough can’t be said of Wilder and Pryor’s chemistry. Maybe that’s what “Money Train” was trying to capture…
1994’s big action hit “Speed” is a movie that has all of the same basic ideas of the runaway train subgenre, but takes the thrills off the tracks and onto the crowded streets of Los Angeles. Keanu Reeves became a bonafide action star and Sandra Bullock became America’s sweetheart after the success of Jan de Bon’s nonstop thriller. The premise is simple, ludicrous, and effective: a madman (Dennis Hopper, who else?) places a bomb on a city bus that will detonate if the bus goes below 50 miles per hour. But wait, there’s more! When disaster on the bus is narrowly averted, Reeves has to deal with another moving disaster-to-be—you guessed it—a runaway subway train! I guess more sometimes is better.
The number-one movie on this list is easy. It also has the most no-nonsense name of all of them: “Runaway Train.” A surprise critical hit in 1985 (though not big with audiences at the time), Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s second American film earned three Oscar nominations, including two for actors Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. They play escaped prisoners who become trapped on a runaway train in a snowy remote region of Alaska. Rebecca DeMornay is on board as the railroad employee who puts it all into context for them. When escape from the train looks hopeless, Voight loses it and won’t let anyone else attempt to leave. Besides the ongoing suspense of the situation, “Runaway Train” makes great use of the convicts’ moral failings and challenges as a character drama as well as an action thriller.