Total Recall: Train Movies
With Unstoppable hitting theaters, we run down some of the best in locomotive cinema.
What do you get when you take a train in the Alaskan wilderness, put an insane Jon Voight on it, give him Eric Roberts for a sidekick, and throw in a little Danny Trejo for good measure? The answer lies in this ?80s action classic about a violent lunatic (Voight) who escapes from prison with the help of a dimwitted convict (Roberts) and ends up stowing away on a train that just happens to be on a collision course...with DEATH! Ahem. The cast and the premise suggest cheesy B-movie thrills, but Runaway Train boasts a surprisingly impressive pedigree -- the script was based on a Kurosawa screenplay, and director Andrei Konchalovsky was still years away from succumbing to the nonsense of Tango & Cash. As Geoff Andrew wrote for Time Out, "Somehow one leaves aside the blatant implausibilities, the coincidences, even Eric Roberts, and takes great pleasure in a breakneck ride to the end of the line."
In 1987, Strangers on a Train received a darkly comedic update in the form of Throw Momma from the Train, a Danny DeVito directorial effort about a struggling writer (Billy Crystal) whose plagiarist ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew) is living large on the success of a book she stole from him, and the browbeaten middle-aged college student (DeVito) who cooks up a plan to get rid of her -- as well as his own battle axe of a mother (Anne Ramsey). While far from a universal success with critics (the Washington Post's Rita Kempley suggested filmgoers "throw the whole thing in front of a subway and hope it gets dragged for a couple of miles"), Throw Momma's blend of mordant humor and well-cast comic foils earned admiration from writers like Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain Xpress, who called it "A rather sweet little comedy masquerading as a black comedy."
It's irredeemably silly -- and it's considered a disappointment even in the often painful context of the Steven Seagal filmography -- but we'd be remiss if we didn't tip our conductor's cap to Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, the train-bound sequel to Seagal's 1992 hit about Casey Ryback, a NAVY Seal-turned-chef with a John McClane-like propensity for crossing paths with maniacal villains. Having saved the world from a boat in Under Siege, Ryback hit the rails here, riding with his niece (Katherine Heigl) on a journey to visit the grave of her father; before they can get there, though, their train is hijacked by Travis Dane (a scenery-gobbling Eric Bogosian), who intends to earn a billion-dollar payday by using a space laser to blow up the East Coast. It's no wonder there was never an Under Siege 3 -- not yet, anyway -- but this is the only movie on this (or any) list whose climax features the bad guy having his fingers cut off by a helicopter door. As the Arizona Daily Star's Phil Villarreal shrugged in his begrudgingly positive review, "Run-of-the-mill Seagal. Could be better, could be worse."
Yeah, yeah, we know -- Robert Zemeckis probably needs to step away from the mo-cap machine and give us a movie that doesn't star dead-eyed animatrons. But in this cynical age, isn't it worth something to have a film that believes so clearly in wonder -- and goes to such great lengths to share that wonder with its audience? It may not be worth a great deal of critical goodwill, as evidenced by The Polar Express' underwhelming 56 percent on the Tomatometer, but between its $300 million theatrical gross, the Polar Express amusement park ride, and the general lack of modern Christmas movies for kids that aren't thoroughly crass, it's easy to understand why so many people agree with Tony Toscano of Talking Pictures, who praised it as "A warm fuzzy for the holidays."
People in the movies just don't travel by train as much as they used to -- unless, that is, they're the sort of lovable eccentrics that populate Wes Anderson movies. For example: 2007's The Darjeeling Limited, named for the train booked by Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) to take himself and his brothers Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrien Brody) on a trip across India. They haven't seen each other since the death of their father a year previous, and their squabbling quickly makes it apparent why; in fact, it gets them kicked off the train, adding another surreal component to a journey that already had plenty of them. "Brothers and other strangers ride The Darjeeling Limited," exhorted Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, calling it "Wes Anderson's captivating road movie that views life as a Great Train of Being."
An ensemble cast, a slowly unraveling mystery, and a railway journey where little is as it seems -- Brad Anderson's Transsiberian was released in 2008, but it's stocked with timeless cinematic ingredients. And it makes smart use of them, too; the smartly twisted script, co-written by Anderson and Will Conroy, recalls themes that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's seen a Hitchcock film (such as Strangers on a Train, perhaps?), but it isn't slavishly derivative -- and it's solidly cast, with Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, and Eduardo Noriega turning in superlative work. As Roger Ebert appreciatively noted, "Transsiberian starts in neutral, taking the time to introduce its characters, and then goes from second into high like greased lightning. I was a little surprised to notice how thoroughly it wound me up. This is a good one."
Finally, here's a great locomotive song from the King: