The Alistair MacLean cycle of blockbuster action/espionage movies had well and truly run its course by the time 1993’s Death Train came along, dropping this thriller into the dustiest distribution hole imaginable. The copy of Death Train on You Tube, recently removed, had a cool 4 million viewers; using Netflix’s famously shonky calculator, on a $20 a ticket multiplier, that’s equal to an $80+ million opening, bigger than any 2021 release so far. Presumably your friends, workmates and family have been sneaking off and covertly watching this engagingly hokey film without telling you. Either way, it’s time for you to take a free ride on the Death Train, also known by the equally duff title Detonator.
A tv movie with a script based on a novel based on a screenplay sounds less-than-promising; this is a vague sequel to 1980’s laughable Hostage Tower, and features UNACO, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, on the trail of a stolen nuclear bomb held by terrorists on a German train. No longer played by Billy Dee Williams, CW (Clarke Peters) is left to interrogate the scientist who built the bomb for a rogue Russian General (Christopher Lee). Centre-stage are Malcolm Philpott (Patrick Stewart) and his old chum “Mike’ Graham, played by Pierce Brosnan and introduced sympathetically throwing a motorbike-race to avoid running over a bunny-rabbit.
The terrorists in David Jackson’s thriller are led by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine who plans to smash his way through to Iraq and force the Russians to invade, creating a new adversary for the US. There’s a quite exciting action scene about twenty minutes in when Graham and his team try and board the moving train; MacLean never saw a helicopter action scenario he didn’t like, and the lack of CGI leaves space for some decent stunts. The plot is kind of ridiculous, and resolves itself rather predictably; Maclean seems to have enough top level access to imagine a nuclear crisis, but the mechanics by which things are resolved are ancient Boys Own stuff.
Death Train is no masterpiece, but it’s undemanding, slump-in-your-chair stuff. It just about manages to entertain, mainly by casting a few well-kent faces most of which went on to bigger things, and also by dint of some decent sub-Bond second unit action. If nothing else, the Siberian locations, hopefully labelled either Kentucky, Germany or Russia, provide some mirth, as does the glimpse of LaGuardia airport in New York, which looks remarkably like an empty stretch of Eastern European airstrip. The title on the version reviewed comes up as ‘Death Train Hollywood Action Movie Action Thriller Hollywood Cinema’, which is probably an apt description of the shenanigans contained.