The Running Man
Circa 2019, five years from, now the world will be very different. But not unfamiliar. It will resemble nothing so much as an ‘80s TV movie, complete with rock video lighting, spandex and really crappy computer graphics. Anyone who says The Running Man is more relevant than ever is missing the point that this could be said of pretty much any vision of a future dystopia where totalitarian regimes keep the population in check with violent entertainment. From Nigel Kneales Year of the Sex Olympics to Rollerball and onwards. The Running Man could have been the defining comment of its decade in this regard, but it felt passé then and just looks badly dated now.
Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its pleasures, mostly in the first half. But so much of The Running Man relies on Arnie doing his thing, armed with a tirade of mostly lowbrow quips, that any pretensions towards social commentary or satire are lost in the melee. This, after all, was the year of Robocop, which did the corporate, and media satire with acumen that still impresses. The Running Man underwhelmed me at the time, and it hasn’t gained anything in the quarter century-plus since. It’s interesting to look at the period immediately prior to Arnie’s great awakening as a mega-star. There was every chance his next movie would be a stinker as one to rate. On the credit side he had Conan the Barbarian, Terminator and the previous summer’s Predator (The Running Man was released in November ’87). On the debit, well Commando has its fans but I’m not one of them and Raw Deal plain stinks. The following summer came Twins, and really broke him in with a mass audience. There was no looking back.
To his credit the actor’s upfront about the picture’s failings, claiming it lost the depth of the source material. Then again, this is an actor who couldn’t see that his casting in Total Recall was conceptually completely at odds with the premise, so what he says needs a pinch of salt. Stephen King/Richard Bachmann’s novel is very different. The hero enters the contest to win money to treat his sickly daughter (corny as hell, so not a bad move to ditch that bit), and events take place on a global scale. It also features a decidedly downbeat ending. The movie’s upbeat solution withstands no scrutiny whatsoever, providing Arnie with clear-cut evidence of innocence of alleged crimes and focusing on humanity’s salvation by means of taking control of the TV studio’s satellite uplink. They Live! did something not dissimilar a year later, but had attitude to spare and didn’t go all happy-happy-joy-joy. Beating a police state by shooting the shit out of a TV studio doesn’t really fly. Inevitably, parallels have been drawn with The Hunger Games but they really highlight that it isn’t so much there’s only so many ideas out there, rather the importance thing is how you realise them (I’m not going to preach The Hunger Games as anything truly special, but it does what it does reasonably effectively).
It could have been very different. Ex-Starsky Paul Michael Glaser had his director training on his hit TV show, before graduating to further TV work (including an episode of the short-lived Otherworld and the none-more-‘80s Miami Vice). The Running Man was his sophomore movie, but he only got the gig after several directors fell out. George Pan Cosmatos (perhaps no great loss) left over script disagreements. Alex Cox was approached but was busy with Walker; that he was up for it is intriguing enough, since he would surely have made the most of its satirical content (I can’t see that he’d ever have got as far as shooting if he had been free, given his penchant for self-immolation, but it’s definitely a version of The Running Man I would love to have seen). Then there’s Andrew Davis, who was briefly in demand during the ‘90s following Under Siege and The Fugitive but whose career was fizzling by the time he actually got to make a whole movie with Arnie (2002’s Collateral Damage, at which point the Austrian Oak was in such a career pickle only a third Terminator would induce anyone to see his pictures).
The story is Davis was fired after eight days and going $8m over budget, but that smacks of producer myth-making. The star clearly learnt his lesson, though, as he spent the next decade aligning himself with A-list directors. Around the time Eraser happened, when he couldn’t attract the “auteurs” any more, Arnie began his tumble. Or perhaps he just could no longer get a fix on the material. He must have recognised Paul Verhoeven could have made great things of The Running Man in his sleep as, for all its failings, Total Recall is a much, much sharper picture.
So Glaser, with a severe shortage of style at his beck and call, does his best. It just isn’t good enough. He pulls of a couple of coups. Richard Dawson as the smooth-as-silk game show host Killian is easily the best of these. Dawson started out as an actor (Hogan’s Heroes was his longest running role) but was best known as presenter of Family Feud (Family Fortunes is the UK version), so he knew all the moves. He’s more than happy to make Killian an irredeemable slimeball, one who knows just how to charm the old dears in the audience. The rest of the casting is uniformly mixed. Maria Conchita Alonso is fairly terrible, but then she often is. In fairness, she’s been saddled with playing a complete idiot. Yaphet Kotto is utterly wasted; I hope his paycheque made up for it (at least Alonso Mosley was just around the corner). Then there are the random choices, none of which add anything (Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa).
Steven E de Souza, fresh from Arnie hit Commando and immediately prior to Die Hard (after which it’s all downhill), adapts King’s book. It’s not clear how much of what ends up on screen is his and how much was amended along the way by the procession of directors. We’re told that in 2017 the world economy has collapsed (okay, I’ll give them that bit). Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones “rules with an iron hand” (that old chestnut). The opening text is a parade of clichés; dissent is not tolerated, state TV provides the most popular show (The Running Man) and all art, music and history is censored. But a “small resistance movement has managed to survive underground”.
What with the cheap graphics and electronic score, you’d be forgiven for thinking this might be the prelude to another outing for Snake Plissken (now, that might have worked, particularly when he doesn’t give a shit about saving the human race from slavery). But it isn’t to be; Harold Faltermeyer provides the score, not John Carpenter (even Faltermeyer’s Axel F gets a bit annoying when it plays incessantly throughout the movie; he doesn’t have the range to score an entire film). Arnie’s Ben Richards won’t open fire on unarmed civilians so he’s framed as “The Butcher of Bakersfield” and sent to a forced labour camp. Cue a glue-on beard and an escape attempt of the exploding heads variety (surely an influence on Christopher Lambert-starrer Fortress a few years later). It isn’t long before he ends up on TV in an attempt to bolster flatlining ratings.
Turning the movie into an arena-style contest enables Arnie to go head-to-head with an array of opponents and, in set-up at least, this ensures he had a decent underdog footing. But the execution is so unimaginative. From the characteristics of his opponents to the terrain in which he fights (the remains of the ’97 quake), to the little fact that all the freedom fighters wear berets, the picture is left relying wholly on the promise of a next kill to come. In that sense, there’s a cuteness to the crowd switching allegiance and rooting for him, since their bloodlust mirrors that of the cinema audience. But since this kind of “They’re us, you know” subtext is ten-a-penny in this sort of picture it’s not much to bray about. Most of the “Stalkers” have little to distinguish them, aside from the manner of their demise. There’s Fireball (Jim Brown), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), and Subzero (Toru Tanaka). Dynamo (Erland van Lidth), with his operatic stylings and Perspex centurion outfit, is at least random enough to attract attention. He also wears what looks like a giant nappy when he attempts to rape Alonso’s character (“I’ll show you dickless”), in a crass scene typical of the picture’s lurch into bargain basement plotting. However, mayor Jesse Ventura, who also co-starred in Predator with Arnie, makes the most of his bit as Captain Freedom, host of Captain Freedom’s Work Out, and he seems to have as much of a sense of self-mockery here as he did as Predator’s “goddam sexual tyrannosaurus”.
This is a future where digital matting has been perfected, so they got that right, but Star Trek is long forgotten (“Who’s Mr Spock?”) Audiences receive gifts so crappy it could be an episode of Crackerjack. Due to the vagaries of plotting, the network can’t even be arsed to clean up the evidence of previous “winners” (their corpses are conveniently easy to find, the evidence ready and waiting to be broadcast to a suddenly outraged population). For every neat joke (Climbing for Dollars, featuring a guy trying to escape a pack of dogs up a rope; “I’m your court-appointed theatrical agent” announces a man in a suit to Arnie; “and not surprisingly she’s flouted the law and traditional morality all her life” says the announcer introducing Amber as a contestant) there’s a lousy one (Hate Boat?) and the sub-Network moral speech (“We give them what they want”) is only made vaguely tolerable thanks to Dawson’s spirited delivery.
And, of course, there are the Arnie one-liners. Sometimes more than one when he offs a bad guy. “Don’t forget to send me a copy,” he quips after using a pen to stab his agent in the back, through the contract he has just signed. “I’ll be back” he informs Killian (who gets the superior comeback “Only in a re-run”). “He was a real pain in the neck” after garrotting Subzero with barbed wire. “He had to split!” having carbed Buzzsaw through the groin with his own chainsaw. “What a hot head” is his verdict after torching Fireball. His response to an invitation to “Drop dead”; “I don’t do requests”.
As Arnie movies go, there’s far more value to remaking this than Total Recall, or semi-rebooting Terminator, since it was never highly regarded and it actually does have a reasonable premise. But I don’t think there’s any way this wouldn’t seem derivative and redundant now. Or rather, King’s original novel, adapted with the surveillance society in mind, might actually have some merit (minus the rather trite ending). But as a timely media satire, the potential of The Running Man has long since been exhausted.