Friday, October 25, 2013

The Running Man - 1987

"The Running Man" - 1987
Dir. by Paul Michael Glaser - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I know that Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting is just one of those things that's never going to get any respect, but I'll be damned if his films aren't still entertaining.  All things considered, they probably shouldn't be (especially if your lead actor isn't a very good actor, by traditional measures), but they usually are.  "The Running Man" comes reasonably early in Schwarzenegger's peak run (he'd done the "Conan" films and the first "Terminator" by this point), and while it's not among his very best films, it's still pretty good.

In the year 2017, everything has broken down, and America is a police state, full of food riots and banned albums.  Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is a policeman, piloting a helicopter to survey one of the riots in Bakersfied, running 1,500 strong.  He's ordered to open fire on the defenseless crowd and refuses, but his fellow officers overcome him and follow orders, leaving the slaghter to be pinned on Ben.  He's sent to a work camp, where prisoners wear explosive necklaces to keep them from escaping.  Finally, a few men figure out how to disarm the necklaces and escape back to the urban hellscape.  Ultimately, Ben is rounded up trying to escape the country with the credentials of a woman, Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso), who has taken Ben's brother's apartment over, whom he kidnaps as cover.  It is at this point where Ben is offered a choice by Killian (Richard Dawson), a television producer/host: be a contestant on the country's most popular game show, "The Running Man," or the men who escaped with Ben will have to compete in his place.  The game show is pretty simple; convicts are supplied to try to run the course in three hours, and if they are able to fight off the Stalkers and do so, they will be granted freedom.  Ben accepts, but promises aren't kept, and things go sideways.

While "The Running Man" is pretty violent (you will see a man's head explode, sort of), it's also a sharp satire of its culture of the time.  Although the idea that contemporary entertainment is too violent and degrading is a constant refrain (I mean, the Bible was pretty violent and ugly at times, and that's not exactly a new book), the notion of a life-or-death game show is one that's taken hold in popular culture.  I'm not saying the idea originated here; 1975's "Death Race 2000" certainly treads some of the same water.  But I can't watch this movie without immediately thinking about "American Gladiators," a TV show that similarly employed physical violence from fitness models and athletes using aggressive stage names to deter contestants from completing a physically-demanding course.  This film also takes sharp jabs at everything from amorality of producing entertainment to the then-current Senate hearings over explicit popular music.  For a movie featuring copious blood and gore (although much of the blood's impact is lessened through the use of color filters, which redden an entire scene, which removes a lot of the visual contrast the blood ought to provide), there's actually a little something here.

In terms of the acting, well, Arnold is Arnold.  His name is right there on the poster, so if you're choosing to see "The Running Man," you knew what you were getting in for, and no complaints will be heard.  And even if he's not what you would call a classically-trained actor, he does have a physical presence, charisma, and pretty good timing.  And on top of that, I always enjoy a bit of glee listening to him swear through his Austrian accent.  Beyond that, Richard Dawson not only does a good job with the sleazy game-show host Killian, his casting is stunt-casting that actually works.  This role came pretty close after a solid decade of hosting "The Family Feud," so turning a real game-show host into a sleazy, manipulative jackass in the exact same role is a fun way of both an actor bringing good baggage to a role, and messing with people's expectations of a particular actor.  And Jesse Ventura has a run smaller role as Mr. Freedom, a stalker turned exercise-tape hawker.  The only other actor with a substantial role is Maria Conchita Alonso, and she brings a pitch-perfect 80's-girl look, but not much else.  There's a kind of train wreck element to watching her and Arnold wade through their respective accents to communicate, but they don't share a lot of chemistry.

On the whole, you've got to just kick back and enjoy "The Running Man" for what it is.  In some ways, it's a throwback to 70's science fiction films, with a big concept that's explored.  Some of the elements of this film haven't aged well (or have aged so poorly as to have become completely awesome), and some weren't great to begin with.  But it's fun, and there's some intelligence at play here even behind the violence and vulgarity, and that goes a long way.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

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