What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
Cannon Fodder is an ongoing column that will re/visit the entire canon (ahem) of feature films produced by Cannon Films. Launching some of the biggest action careers in film history, such as Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cannon Films were the ultimate purveyors of mid-budget cheese throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s. Cannon Fodder will explore the entire filmography of this storied production company (in no particular order) and will do its best to prepare AICN readers for the upcoming release of Mark Hartley’s definitive Cannon Films Documentary; Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.
Although Cannon Films was not run for the entirety of its existence by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, they are the power players that gambled big and eventually lost big with this prolific production house. Each edition of Cannon Fodder will briefly explore what level of involvement the loveable cousins had in each film. Because there are several dozen titles in the Cannon Canon, each installment of this column will cover multiple titles.
I decided to go down a bit of a rabbit trail with the next Cannon Fodder column. I’ll get more into the details below, but I learned through watching 10 TO MIDNIGHT that Charles Bronson teamed up with director J. Lee Thompson to create some 9 films together towards the latter half of each of their careers. Partnerships like this are fascinating to me, and Cannon was home to many of these films. SO, this week’s 10 TO MIDNIGHT coverage will lead into the next column’s coverage of further Bronson/Thompson team ups! You can pick them up at the above links and join me in discussing them on the next Cannon Fodder!
10 TO MIDNIGHT is a title that I had actually seen many years ago since I’m a pretty huge Charles Bronson fan. I haven’t seen all of his movies yet, but I’ve tracked down quite a few over the years. Bronson, for my money, stars in the greatest Western ever made: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Needless to say, I’m excited for the next entry of Cannon Fodder because I haven’t seen either of the upcoming Bronson-fests. But I digress; the purpose in telling you that I had already seen 10 TO MIDNIGHT was really to tell you that I did not like the film those many years ago.
Rewatching it for this column, however, I had a blast with it! Even I am surprised by how much my opinion on a film can change over a few years. My theory is that I went into the film last time with a totally incorrect set of expectations. The movie delivers something pretty gruesome and horror-focused, as opposed to a more typical Bronson cop/revenge/thriller. Some of the creative decisions are quite bold and I guess I was somehow so thrown off and shocked by the brutality of the film that I reacted negatively.
Not so this time. 10 TO MIDNIGHT does feature a pretty familiar Bronson role. He plays Leo Kessler, a cop with typical movie-cop problems: he works all the time, and is emotionally aloof with his adult daughter Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher). What is not typical in 10 TO MIDNIGHT, however, is that Bronson’s character finds himself trapped in a 1980s slasher film. And the slasher elements of 10 TO MIDNIGHT are still unsettling and disturbing watching them today. The brutality factor must have completely blown away audiences in 1983.
The key ingredient in 10 TO MIDNIGHT is our killer. Not a faceless or cloaked slasher, we know that Warren Stacy (Gene Davis) is a psycho killer from the moment we meet him. Davis pulls off a bold villain here, and not JUST because he is naked for significant screen time. Instead of being a crusty murderer who dwells in the sewers poring over creepy spy photos of his victims, Stacy is a preppy. He lives in a clean apartment, has an office job, and blow dries his hair. He is athletic and attractive, but something is deeply wrong. His murderous tendencies have a disturbingly sexual element to them. He commits all of his murders in the nude, with rubber gloves on, which serves to eliminate DNA evidence, but also amps up the discomfort significantly. Imagine if Jason Vorhees did all his killing in the nude. You’d be messed up by that visual, right?
Of course, Bronson’s Kessler and Davis’ Stacy are on a collision course. At first, Stacy just seems like an obvious suspect and becomes a key focus in the investigation. But things get personal quickly. Stacy targets Kessler’s daughter, and Kessler crosses the line several times in order to protect his daughter and stop this ruthless killer. The cat and mouse game between cop and killer evoked memories of both SEVEN and I SAW THE DEVIL for me. 10 TO MIDNIGHT is definitely not on the same level as either of those two films, but it plays in the same disturbing playground and came about 20-30 years sooner.
10 TO MIDNIGHT is a standout Bronson film if only because of how different the story is that hangs around his fairly stock character. Sure, I love me some Bronson, but this movie belongs to Gene Davis for his bold villain and probably to writers William Roberts and writer/director J. Lee Thompson. As I mentioned earlier, this film represents just one of many collaborations between Thompson and Bronson. I don’t think this long collaboration was by any means the height of either of these two mens’ careers, but I love that they found a connection and continued to make movies together over a couple of decades. Thompson’s prestigious earlier career included directing THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and CAPE FEAR in the 1960s, and even a couple of the PLANET OF THE APES films in the 1970s. I believe the last 7 films he made were under the Cannon banner, with most of those being Bronson vehicles. I, for one, can’t wait to delve even deeper into this collaboration. 10 TO MIDNIGHT probably isn’t as prestigious as some of the films mentioned above, but it is an uncomfortably edgy night at the movies.
Things You Will Only Ever See In THIS Movie
Charles Bronson repeatedly waving around an elaborate, electronic, early-‘80s era sex toy.
- Wilfred Brimley bossing Charles Bronson around in the role of the angry police chief!
- This side note doesn’t really fit under this heading, but I have to note something I observed here: Anyone see a resemblance between the pink font work on the 10 TO MIDNIGHT poster and the promo materials for DRIVE? They strike a similar chord to me.
How Many Tablespoons of Golan/Globus Are Added?
Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are credited as Executive Producers. Humorously, the title 10 TO MIDNIGHT has no application to the events in the film. Apparently Menahem Golan and producer Pancho Kohner gave the film its title, which sounds like typical bizarre exec behavior to me. Cannon Group produced the film and Cannon Film Distributors handled theatrical release, along with MGM/United Artists.
How Can You See 10 TO MIDNIGHT?
10 TO MIDNIGHT is available on DVD through MGM Home Entertainment. Amazon’s price is ridiculously inflated if you buy the solo DVD. BUT, You can get 10 TO MIDNIGHT in this 5 pack Bronson box set along with THE MECHANIC and DEATH WISH 2-4 for much cheaper! As always, any purchases through those links will help support this column. But I just streamed the film via Netflix Watch Instant, myself.
As I’ve mentioned before, I really want Cannon Fodder to be as interactive as possible, so I have been listening to what talkbackers want to see this column cover. Man, am I glad I listened to folks about this title. To be honest, I’d never heard of the film before I started digging around the Cannon catalog and checking out what talkbackers wanted to discuss.
RUNAWAY TRAIN is an action film that is steeped in real drama. It is a character study before anything else, which is part of what makes it a significant film in the midst of Cannon’s mostly middling (and lovable) catalog. John Voight stars, Eric Roberts supports, and both were nominated for Academy Awards for their efforts. As a matter of fact, RUNAWAY TRAIN was also nominated for the Best Editing Oscar for Henry Richardson. Both Voight and Roberts were also nominated for Golden Globe Awards and Voight won there! It was even nominated for a Best Picture – Dramatic Category at the Golden Globes that year. Let’s just say, I’m not all that used to talking Academy in this here Cannon Films column, but RUNAWAY TRAIN deserves the recognition it received.
And yet, somehow the film is largely forgotten today. I can’t suggest for a moment that just because I’ve never heard of a film it is “forgotten”. But RUNAWAY TRAIN just has so much prestige and quality surrounding it that I’m surprised it isn’t more widely discussed and referenced these days. What prestige am I talking about? Well, aside from the nominations and award wins, the original screenplay for RUNAWAY TRAIN was written by none other than Akira Kurosawa. Apparently Kurosawa himself was planning to direct a version of this film and weather problems derailed the production (see what I did there?) Ultimately the film ended up being directed by Russian filmmaker Andrey Konchalovskiy who helmed several Russian films before breaking out onto the international scene. Looking over his filmography, he appears to mostly create more subtle and dramatic stories. And he still lives and works in Moscow today. But that didn’t stop him from creating both RUNAWAY TRAIN and… TANGO AND CASH. Obviously.
At any rate, what is RUNAWAY TRAIN all about? The film tells the story of Manny (Voight) and Buck (Roberts) who escape an isolated prison in Alaska only to find themselves stuck on a speeding and driverless train. Voight’s Manny is an institutionalized criminal who starts out the film winning a very public legal appeal which requires his oppressive warden (John P. Ryan as Warden Rankin) to release him from solitary confinement in which he was WELDED into his cell. Manny’s victory in this legal appeal rankles Warden Rankin and the prison even riots in celebration of Manny’s victory. Manny is convinced that escape from prison will be the ultimate path not only to freedom, but to victory over his enemy Rankin.
Roberts plays an adoring younger prisoner who simply wants to bask in the glow of the most celebrated prisoner in Alaska. A talented boxer, Buck stubbornly follows Manny on his escape and together the two men must battle against the elements and fate itself as they seek freedom. Fate isn’t going to play nicely for these hardened men, however. And when they reach civilization and board a train to freedom, a series of mishaps occur which sends them careening down the track at increasing speeds with no way to stop the train.
RUNAWAY TRAIN does a great job of working around the whole “why don’t they just jump off” argument that comes up whenever train movies are made. For one thing, they don’t know there is a problem until it is too late and the train is going too fast. And for another thing, the script for RUNAWAY TRAIN is so good, the thrills and drama all work together to make you realize that you don’t want them to jump off the train anyway!
What makes the script and final product SO damn good? Well, aside from the performances, RUNAWAY TRAIN is filled to the brim with ideas and metaphor which would probably require multiple views to entirely soak in. Throughout the film, we see modern technology fail to stop the train time and again. In a standard Hollywood thriller, these sequences would exist solely for tension. But here, you feel like the filmmakers are getting at something deeper. There is a suggestion that technology simply will not solve all of our problems. And the automation process that is taking over our tech-obsessed society might be removing an important layer of our humanity.
And the conflicts that develop between Manny, Buck, and Rankin all feel like insights into the human condition more than just ratcheting up the tension to a breaking point for a killer climax. My sense is that yes, the film does take place on a runaway train, but that Manny himself is truly the subject of the film’s title. Manny will stop at absolutely nothing to gain his freedom. But does that make him a good man, a symbol of freedom from oppression? Is Manny a prophet, or just an obsessed and selfish convict? And what about Warden Rankin? How much of his soul is sacrificed in his relentless quest to kill Manny’s spirit? Roberts is the observer here, watching two titans collide and trying to find his place. As we watch the film, we identify most with Buck who acts as our surrogate, along for the ride as Manny and Rankin battle it out. I believe that the ending to RUNAWAY TRAIN offers a lot of food for thought as well.
Ultimately, Rankin’s obsession with destroying Manny overtakes any goodness (or reason) within him. Once he realizes the prisoners are on the train, he boards the train from a helicopter and confronts Manny. If this were a lesser film, I would question why rescue workers couldn’t have flown a helicopter out and SAVED the stowaways. But Rankin connives his way to the speeding train with the sole purpose of beating his enemy. Once the warden chooses confrontation over rescue upon boarding the train, his fate is sealed. Manny, on the other hand, overcomes his selfish obsession with “never going back” and finds the courage to sacrifice himself in order to disconnect the cars and spare Buck’s life. Sure, he gets the confrontation he always wanted with the warden, and he finds a symbolic redemption in the act of saving Buck’s life. But Manny remains a runaway train, so passionate to remain out of prison and victorious over the system, that the film’s final image is one of Voight, atop the speeding train, fading into a blizzard and certain death. Manny found his redemption, but there was no life beyond it for him. RUNAWAY TRAIN tells the story of a bright flame snuffed out by institutionalization and hatred of his oppressors.
Yeah, I’m getting a little heavy here. But RUNAWAY TRAIN warrants it. This is a thinking man’s action film. A thriller exploring the human condition, fate, and the debilitating power of hatred. Manny and Rankin’s seething hatred of one another results in their deaths and one gets the sense that this story could even be about larger ideas, such as nation hating nation.
I highly recommend checking out RUNAWAY TRAIN to see a couple of the greatest performances either Voight or Roberts even committed to celluloid. But as you speed into the tense climax with these two convicts, keep your brain active and see what you take away from this excellent production.
Things You Will Only Ever See In THIS Movie
- “Tiny” Lister and Eric Roberts looking at a porn magazine together in an elevator.
- Eric Roberts knocking Danny Trejo the f—k out in an onscreen boxing match!
- An action film that fades out into a Shakespeare quote… and EARNS it. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore I am no beast." – Shakespeare, Richard III
How Many Tablespoons of Golan/Globus Are Added?
Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are credited as Producers. RUNAWAY TRAIN appears to have been financed by Golan-Globus Productions and distributed by The Cannon Group for theatrical release in the United States. So, this is a huge home run for the Israeli cousins all around. The film also made profit on top of all the critical acclaim!
How Can You See RUNAWAY TRAIN?
RUNAWAY TRAIN is available on DVD, currently being distributed on home video by MGM Home Entertainment. You can support this column by picking up the DVD for yourself over at Amazon here. Frankly, the Amazon price is steep and it looks like you can also buy the film from Blockbuster for a better rate. I was also able to rent the DVD from Netflix for this column.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis