Skip to main content

Captain Freedom to wardrobe. Captain Freedom to wardrobe on the double.

The Running Man
(1987)

(SPOILERS) Now here’s a Stephen King/Richard Bachman adaptation that could do with a remake. The actual date of futuristic dystopias clocking round is usually a cue to compare and contrast, and no doubt in two years there will be legion Blade Runner articles doing precisely that (and damning/feting the worthy/tragic sequel). Actually, they might be doing it with The Running Man too, since it’s only a worldwide economic collapse announced in the opening crawl that occurred in 2017; the events of the movie also take place two years from now. Nevertheless, it has garnered some attention (most notably an Empire article) this year. Working against celebrating its anniversary on either date is that isn’t much cop, nor was it ever considered to be.


The Running Man came at the point when Arnie was transitioning from anything-will-do actioners to picking his collaborators more diligently (he’d already scored with Cameron, and some might say Milius, too, and incoming were McTiernan – Predator came out five months before this –  and Hill). One might suggest it’s appropriate that a movie about a TV show is the spit of a TV movie, but the truth is rather less meta. It came about through several firings (George P Cosmatos, Carl Schenkel, Ferdinand Fairfax) and leftfield choices (Alex Cox was asked, but was making Walker) before Andrew Davis (who would later direct Schwarzenegger in Collateral Damage) was handed the reins but promptly dismissed when he fell behind schedule and went over budget.


These decisions came from producer Rob Cohen, who has most recently served up dreck like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Alex Cross as a director, so it’s probably safe to say he doesn’t know a decently-shot movie when he sees it. If he did, he certainly wouldn’t have hired Starsky, Paul Michael Glaser. Glaser had previously helmed one solitary Michael Mann-produced movie and served time on various TV stints, including an episode of the short-lived Otherworld titled, rather gloriously, Village of the Motorpigs. Arnie thought Glaser’s work was lousy too, if that’s any comfort.


By 2017, the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron fist.

Television is controlled by the state and a sadistic game show called The Running Man has become the most popular programme in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground.

When high-tech gladiators are not enough to suppress the people’s yearning for freedom…more direct methods become necessary.


The Running Man departs significantly from King’s short story, although that’s no bad thing in itself, unless you’re King, and the “reality TV to the death” idea was a good couple of decades old even at the time (a lawsuit alleging King mined Robert Scheckley’s 1958 The Prize of Peril was eventually thrown out on appeal), and had been the inspiration for the Doctor Who story Vengeance on Varos two years earlier. It would, of course, gain enormous currency quarter of a century on with The Hunger Games (with similar, somewhat stretching it attestations regarding its depth and resonance).


There’s more than enough potential for sharp satire in Steven E de Souza’s screenplay (he had previously worked on Arnie’s Commando, mind), but it needed a sympathetic eye to bring such an element out; that might have been Cox (although he never played well with studio suits). It might have been Verhoeven (whose Robocop hit almost all the targets Running Man missed the same year). It definitely wasn’t the less-than-journeyman Glaser.


Agent: Mr Richards, I’m your court-appointed theatrical agent.

A few gems of satirical content do shine through, however, and I don’t mean a TV show called The Hate Boat. The ad for Climbing for Dollars, in which a contestant is about to be mauled by hungry Dobermans is flat-out hilarious. Some of the dialogue is pretty sharp (when Maria Conchita Alonso’s poor innocent Amber is introduced as a contestant, it’s with the tutting, just-rewards explanation that she “flouted the law, and traditional morality all of her life”).


Killian: They want ratings, I can get them ten points for biceps alone.

Richard Dawson is given little in the way of spectacular dialogue as slimy host Damon Killian, but you wouldn’t know it, he does so much make the part his own. He’s all smiles to a janitor who bumps into him but promptly has him fired out of earshot, and his repartee with favoured old lady guest Agnes – “I want a kiss, now, a big kiss, but remember… no tongues” – is just the kind of ingratiating spiel that sold many a gameshow during the ‘80s (although, giving Agnes the sweary “That boy is one mean motherfucker” on picking Ben Richards to score the next kill is crude and cheap). There’s little resonance to Killian’s final speech (“This is television, that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it’s to do with rating!”), although it does at least recognise that he’s a disposable cog in the machine.


Captain Freedom: Are you ready for pain? Are you ready for suffering? If the answer is yes, then you’re ready for Captain Freedom’s Workout!

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s Jesse Ventura’s Captain Freedom who makes the biggest impact in this vein, shown off in note-perfect workout parody videos à la Jane Fonda (Paula Abdul did the movie’s choreography, explaining the high standard in that department; no, straight up, I’m serious), looking understandably pissed at being cut off mid-flow by Killian and, when summoned to return to stalker territory, having a hissy fit over his wardrobe (“This stuff is garbage!”) as he cites the code of the gladiator. Predator may have made his big screen name, but this other Arnie showing comes a close second.


The Running Man is not only foisted with TV direction, it looks cheap to boot (and it wasn’t that cheap, if Wikipedia’s $27m price tag is to be believed: nearly $60m today). One might suggest, in its favour, that cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth (his career, amongst TV fare such as Mrs Columbo, includes gems like Death Wish II and Look Who’s Talking Too) keeps things dark and murky, but that rather belies this being the most popular TV show in history. You’d expect something as glossy as Arnie’s spandex – much mocked, but their gaudiness is one of the few things the visuals get right –  rather than a succession of under-lit basements constituting “400 square blocks left over from the big quake of ’97” (the same year Snake Plissken escaped from New York).


Richards: Oh, he had to split.

Perhaps the one thing to say in Glaser’s favour is that he doesn’t play up the violence, which is incredibly gratuitous (I can only imagine what this would have looked like under Verhoeven) There’s an exploding head early on, during a prison break (laying the groundwork for Fortress). Arnie’s Ben Richard’s takes out his gladiatorial opponents with due deftness, armed with necessarily appalling quips, but little of the carnage has an impact. He strangles Sub Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka, also of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) with barbed wire (“Now, plain Zero…. He was a real pain in the neck”), but Glaser bathes the sequence in a red filter. So too Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch) having his chainsaw turned on himself, crotchwards; Glaser refrains from showing the viscera. Fireball (Jim Brown) is ignited with his blowtorch (“How about a light?”) Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude) is all intent on raping Amber (“I’ll show you dickless!”) but she electrocutes him in his underpants. There’s a desperate lack of creativity to these opponents (attacking with ice pucks?) that speaks to the execution of the picture generally.


The casting is similarly random, and as such would go well with a double bill of Johnny Mnemonic. Alonso is, as usual, flat out terrible. Mick Fleetwood shows up as resistance leader Mic, wearing prosthetics that make him look like Geoffrey Rush. Dweezil Zappa is his underling Stevie. Yaphet Kotto, sporting James Brown hair, is given a thankless part as Richard’s prison escape buddy.


Ben Richards: I said the crowd is unarmed!

And Arnie. Apparently, Christopher Reeve was originally pursued, which might have been a good move, certainly in presenting some genuine tension as to the outcome. Ben Richards is a good guy, a police pilot framed as the Butcher of Bakersfield after he refuses to open fire on unarmed civilians and his buddies go ahead anyway. One wonders, however, how his conscience permitted him to go along with a totalitarian regime (the Cadre) that long in the first place.


That aside, this bastion of morality takes worryingly Arnie-like pleasure in offing his opponents, including Killian (“Well, that hit the spot!”, on firing the host into a billboard for Cadre Cola). It’s also an uphill struggle to side with him when he so expressly and casually puts Amber in harm’s way, holding her hostage and warning her “And remember, I can break your neck like a chicken’s”. For some reason, she becomes his defender (Stockholm Syndrome?) even to the point of smuggling the tape proving his innocence in her vagine for the entire contest (the role in general exhibits the worst excesses of trophy female lead casting during the period, complete with Arnie giving her a gratefully-received snog in the final scene).


Ben Richards: I’ve seen you before. You’re the asshole on TV.

There’s a general feeling of miscasting the Austrian Oak, not as severe as in Total Recall, but at no point is there the sense that Richards is an underdog going into the game, and the succession of quips (including a desperate “I’ll be back”) further serve to undermine the sense that this is anything other than a retrofitted Arnie vehicle. There’s the occasional good line (Amber threatens to throw up all over him: “Go ahead, it won’t show on this shirt” replies Richards of his Hawaiian number) but never a sense that this is firing on all Arnie cylinders.


Killian: You bastard! Drop dead!
Ben Richards: I don’t do requests.

De Souza’s screenplay features a number of elements that lack finesse, not least of which is the location of the network’s uplink facilities, conveniently in the game zone itself; the easy solution smacks of the quick-fix ending that would also conclude the following year’s They Live!, only in more downbeat fashion. Then there’s the way the previous “winners” are left around decomposing as if there aren’t any clean-up crews (surely the zone would be littered with corpses if no one tidied it after a broadcast?) They also have such perfect technology for creating fake news, it’s a wonder they need to make the game at all (of which, audience reactions tend to be much more engrossing than the action itself).


Is there anything prescient in The Running Man? Not really, no. You can tell as soon as the pixelated “running” logo appears that this is trapped in a very dated setting, and its message is accordingly rote and unremarkable. Empire would have it as a foretelling of Trumpland, but since everything has suddenly, miraculously, become that, it’s a pretty lazy take.


It does stand as a yardstick in the Arnie filmography, though. After this his projects would be polished, prestige affairs in one way or another, at least until his governorship. And King? Ironically, this is still one of his more successful adaptations financially, even though its performance was relatively middling (studios tend to think there’s more cachet in his name than there usually is… at least until It opened. Now a slew of flops will no doubt ensue, as every studio scrabbles about for every property not yet in production. And most of them will flop). Give it a few years for The Hunger Games dust to settle, and I suspect a new Running Man movie will be bolting out of the gates, with another screenplay that pays scant attention to the short story. (Edit: It has to say something that I didn't even remember I last watched this a mere three years ago and reviewed it, so perhaps I will be giving it another look in a couple of years with that same touch of amnesia.)



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Kroll couldn’t tell the difference between you and me and half an acre of dandelion and burdock.

Doctor Who The Power of Kroll
All baloney? Certainly, The Power of Kroll was and is oft-cited as one of the worst Doctor Who stories evah, which is probably why there’s now a converse apologia that it isn’t that bad at all, actually, to the extent that a cult of Kroll has grown around it, bathing in its badness, Plan 9 from Outer Space-like. Both the 1998 DWM and 2003 Outpost Gallifrey story polls, way back before there was nu-Who to mess with the purity of the process, had it pegged at 145th out of 160-ish (the exact number depending on which other extraneous inclusions were allowed), which isn’t quite the pits but not far off. Far from being an exemplar of all that’s wrong with the much-maligned Graham Williams era, though, the story stands out because it effectively shuns many of its key ingredients. Albeit, the most notable exception to this proved the biggest stick to beat it with: never more variable production values.

So, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
(SPOILERS) I suppose you have to give Kevin Feige credit for turning the least-likely-to-succeed-in-view-of-America’s-standing-with-the-rest-of-the-world superhero into one of Marvel’s biggest success stories, but I tend to regard Steve Rogers and his alter ego as something of a damp squib who got lucky. Lucky in that his first sequel threw him into a conspiracy plotline that effectively played off his unwavering and unpalatable nobility and lucky in that his second had him butting heads with Tony Stark and a supporting selection of superheroes. But coming off the starting block, Captain America: The First Avenger is as below par as pre-transformation Steve himself, and I’m always baffled when it turns up in best of Marvel Cinematic Universe lists. The best I can say for it is that Joe Johnston’s movie offers a mildly engaging opening section and the occasional facility for sharp humour. For the most part, though, it’s as bland and impersonal as…

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
(SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

In a way, that’s good, as there can be no real defence that the fault lies elsewhere. What was Russell Mulcahy thinking? What was anyone thinking? Th…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

So the house is falling apart and the vineyard makes undrinkable wine. Excellent.

A Good Year (2006)
(SPOILERS) I oughtn’t really to like A Good Year. And, kind of, I don’t. But I kind of do too. Despite entirely floundering on a number of levels that should entirely incapacitate it on the starting line, it’s probably the most likeable, personable movie Ridley Scott has made in the past two decades. Which doesn’t make it very good, but it’s very evident he actually had something invested in what he was making for a change.

I apologise for Oslo's low murder rate.

The Snowman (2017)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Morton Tyldum made Jo Nesbø adaptations look deceptively easy with Headhunters, although Tyldum hasn’t show such facility with material since, so maybe Nesbø simply suits someone with hackier sensibilities than Tomas Alfredson. It’s a long way down from the classy intrigue of John Le Carré to the serial killer clichés of The Snowman, and I’m inclined to think that, even if Alfredson had managed to film that 15% of the screenplay he says went awry, this wouldn’t have been all that great.