The Running Man (1987) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong pervasive violence and language
Running time: 101 min.
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jesse Ventura, Yaphet Kotto, Jim Brown, Erland Van Lidth, Gus Rethwisch, Professor Toru Tanaka, Mick Fleetwood, Dweezil Zappa, Kurt Fuller
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Screenplay: Steven E. de Souza (based on the novel by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King))
Review published July 3, 2011
Set in the post-world financial demise of the year 2019, The Running Man stars Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator, Conan the Barbarian) as law enforcement officer and helicopter pilot Ben Richards, who ends up getting framed for instigating the murder of a crowd of innocent civilians engaging in a protest for food in Bakersfield. Richards and a couple of benevolent jail mates spring out of prison and go on the run, only to be captured later and used as scapegoats for the massacre by becoming involuntary contestants on the most popular television show in history, the government-supported 'The Running Man', whereby convicted murders are put into a glitzy game show where they must battle for their lives and the hope of a pardon while being hunted by a rogues gallery of skilled costumed assassins, all for the entertainment of a rabid public fan base. Richard Dawson (The Devil's Brigade, Munster Go Home) has a major supporting role as the show's charismatic host, Damon Killian, who is as pleasant as can be when the camera is on, but is an unscrupulous, cutthroat business man behind the scenes. Killian gets ever more averse to the depiction of the truth as Richards not only manages to stay alive far longer than any previous contestant, he is also in danger of becoming a national hero.
The Running Man, which started off as a Stephen King novella that he published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982, can be seen as a satire on modern television trends, primarily in how the government and corporations use media in order to mollify the masses living in states of oppression, similar to the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome. The main target is mindless, escapist popular fare like professional wrestling and game shows, and is quite prescient in predicting the coming of the reality show programming (i.e. "Survivor") which would become so pervasive on television over a decade later. It's a basic formula of survival, following The Most Dangerous Game's and Rollerball's premise if given a WWE treatment, not dissimilar to the way video games pit the player up against progressively more difficult and colorful bosses, called "stalkers" in the film, to fight with a variety of cool weaponry. The futuristic setting evokes Blade Runner in appearance and the TV show (and commercials) featuring "Max Headroom".
Steven E. de Souza (48 Hrs. Die Hard), who scripted a prior Arnie vehicle with Commando, gives him all the comic relief one-liners audiences come to anticipate after every vicious kill. The dialogue is light, though Arnold does labor with some of it with his stiff acting during scenes that don't contain action, which is especially true of the opening scene whereby Schwarzenegger is all but completely made of wood as he recites lines clearly not written with his limited grasp of English vernacular mind. The real surprise of the film is the effective villainy evoked by "Family Feud" host Richard Dawson, who oozes malice, humor, charm, and viciousness, all at the same time, while also showing why he's the consummate game show host personality. It's difficult to imagine anyone else more suited for the role, and it's a surprise that it would be his last big screen performance given the buzz.
Veteran TV director Paul Michael Glaser (Kazaam, The Cutting Edge), best known for starring as Starsky from the 1970s TV show "Starsky and Hutch", directs with some good energy once the action begins to roll out, though there could have been a better, more original sense of style to separate the film from other 1980s sci-fi fare. Though futuristic in its appearance, there are some dated aspects to the production, including the computer graphics, and, most notably, the electronic score by Harold Faltermeyer that feels too 1980s to imagine the film created at any other period. The supporting roles are cast for looks more than anything else, with lively Maria Conchita Alonso (Predator 2, Chasing Papi) barely memorable, and stars like Yaphet Kotto (The Star Chamber, Alien), Jim Brown (He Got Game, Small Soldiers) and Mick Fleetwood (of Fleetwood Mac fame) not given a great deal to do from an acting standpoint. Jesse Ventura (Demolition Man, Batman & Robin) gets one scene where he fights mano-a-mano against Schwarzenegger in a scene more significant because it features two future state governors in a fight scene together.
The Running Man may not be an actors showcase, and it may be comfortable riding the coattails of others in terms of its concepts, but it doesn't strive to be anything more than it is -- a supercharged comic book-style action and cheesy black comedy vehicle for Arnie to smash heads and kick butts. As such, it is worthwhile for fans of its star, and of 1980s sci-fi in general, as long as expectations are tempered for a return to the quality of The Terminator. It's a film more interested in entertaining than warning of a dystopia in our near future. Take it all in fun, and you'll have enough of it to consider it worthwhile time spent.
©2011 Vince Leo