Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Running Man (1987) **

I’m not sure why I re-watched this piece of 1980’s silliness. I saw it on the Netflix watch-it-now list, and just went for it. Not much of an excuse, I know. This was from the height of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie stardom, and the studio clearly understood that the only way they could go wrong was by driving the audience away by making a movie that was too smart. They took no chances on that. And yet, “The Running Man” still manages to be a somewhat entertaining movie, and there are times when the filmmakers let us know that they are in on the joke.

The movie is based on a novel by Stephen King. In a dystopian future world, Arnold plays Ben Richards, a cop who gets framed for murdering dozens of civilians. He escapes from prison with members of an underground resistance group, gets arrested again, and winds up on the TV game show “The Running Man.“ The show represents the logical outcome of an entertainment culture that is racing to see who can best pander to the most prurient and debased tastes of the lowest common denominator. Convicted felons are forced to run a deadly gauntlet of gimmicky gladiators. If they make it through, they supposedly get their freedom, but most get messily murdered on-screen. Richards and his friends try to negotiate this deadly game while finding a way to subvert the network satellite link and broadcast the truth about the game and the government that supports it across the world.

It’s not a bad premise for a movie, but great things should not be expected from this film. “The Running Man” is largely pitched to teenage boys, and there isn’t much substance. This is purely an action movie, and it’s okay as far as that goes, although I find even the action sequences to be a bit lazy and ponderous compared to a movie like “Die Hard.“ This is also one of those action flicks that is all about the “glib” one-liners, and man, they suck! Example: After Richards cuts one of the gladiators in half with a chainsaw, he says, “He had to split.” These kind of lines are forced and painful, and they have ruined many an action movie, with the James Bond films being a case in point. I seem to remember thinking these zingers were funny as a teenager, though, so I guess the filmmakers knew how to speak to their audience.

Now for the good parts: First, Richard Dawson is awesome! He is the old host of the game show, “The Family Feud,” and he plays the host of the Running Man brilliantly. This guy really should have done more movies. Future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has a small role as well, and does it up right. In fact, his character points out something about the movie that annoyed me, which made me then like the film more. All the gladiators have some sort of gimmicky weapon, like fire or electricity, which makes them really silly. Ventura plays a retired gladiator who gets called back into service after Ben Richards dispatches all the others. Ventura storms into the production room wearing some silly, creaky metal armor and starts ripping the pieces off, saying, “I don’t need this crap. I used to kill guys like this with my bare hands.”

Here’s one of the most bizarre things in the movie, and I don’t whether it was intended with irony or not. Early on, there are shots of the “Running Man” audience cheering lustily for the gladiators to kill Richards and his friends. Later, after the resistance broadcasts the truth, there are shots of the same audience lustily cheering on Richards and the resistance as they trash the TV station and fight the police. Did all those people in the bars and on the streets suddenly become enlightened citizens? Are they going to go out and fight for true democracy now? Or are they just happy to see some violence, no matter who is supplying it? Maybe I should get the actual DVD and see if there is a commentary that discusses that. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t make sense to invest any more time in this movie.

2 Stars

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