Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Running Man (1987)

Title: The Running Man (1987)

Director: Paul Michael Glaser

Cast: Arnold Schwarznegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson, Jesse Ventura


So since I’m still on a revolutionary role here after the success of VIVA LA REVOLUTION, I decided to post my review for The Running Man, a film that also has a rebellious streak to it. It was made at the time when Arnold Schwarznegger’s career was in full swing. He’d already made The Terminator, the two Conan films, Commando and Predator. He was well on his way towards becoming the cinematic legend that he is. The Running Man isn’t exactly Arnolds best film, but it has a deliciously rebellious aura to it that I enjoyed.

Arnold, the rebellious convict

In the year 2019, the world’s economy is in shambles and the United States has turned into a totalitarian dystopia. To appease the masses, the government runs a show called The Running Man, the most successful television show ever aired. The show consists of giving convicts the opportunity to win full pardons if and only if they survive being hunted down by the “Stalkers”, killers who are paid to hunt and kill the convicts. Enter Ben Richards; a convict who was wrongly accused. He is an innocent man and he knows it so he will stop at nothing to escape the stalkers and win his pardon. He also intends to stop the sadistic show from ever going on the air again.

A lot of these rebellious films have their main character start out as part of the government machine, then, for whatever reason they are betrayed by the government they work for and suddenly have to run from them. Suddenly, instead of working for the system, these types of characters become ‘enemies of the state’. Usually, they start the film out as police men or soldiers of the government and are happy to be working for them, until the tables turn and the main character feels the oppression and the lies for themselves. He or she finally tastes first hand the heel of the governments boot stomping them square in the face. You can find characters like these in such films as Equilibrium, Logan’s Run, and the film I’ll be talking about today, The Running Man.

In The Running Man Schwarznegger plays Ben Richards, a military pilot who refuses to open fire on a crowd of civilians who are protesting for food. “All they want is some food for Christ sake!” yells Ben, while the government orders him to kill all the protesters. His refusal to obey the governments’ orders earns him exclusive reservations at the state penitentiary. He manages to escape with the help of a motley crew of rebels and from there on in he literally becomes the running man, always running away from government officials, running for his freedom. You see, in the film, the government uses the media to make it look like Ben actually did open fire on all those civilians. They even named him the ‘Butcher of Bakersfield’. So, with the government and the rest of society against him, he runs. It’s no surprise that freedom is often times associated with running for it, escaping to some peaceful location; free from the choke hold of ‘the system’. Films like Vanishing Point (1971) Logan’s Run (1976) and even Easy Rider (1969) show us this. These films are filled with characters running from the authorities in search of their own personal freedom.

The Running Man comments on the media and how easily the masses are swayed by it. The people are addicted to The Running Man, they form groups in front of giant television screens that are reminiscent of the tele-screens that Big Brother would bark his orders from in Orwell’s 1984. The audience loves the violence; they love to see the Stalkers kill the convicts in gruesome ways. And they eat up all of the lies that the shows host, Damon Killian, tells them. The movie shows how easily the masses can be controlled with television and media. At one point in the film the cheer for the Stalkers and the next, they are cheering for Ben. At one point the adore Killian, and the next they want to rip him to shreds.

By the way, Damon Killian is one sleaze ball of a character! Casting former Family Feud host Richard Dawson to play Damon Killian was a brilliant move. I mean, lets face it, Richard Dawson was the game show host that everyone loved to hate. In my opinion during his Family Feud days, Dawson always had that sleazy quality to him that translated perfectly to the equally sleazy Killian a character who loves the publics attention, and he knows how to manipulate them, a quality he uses to full advantage in the film. By the way, this film kind of does the same kind of fake television commercials we saw in Robocop. There’s one for a show called ‘Climbing for Dollars’ in which we see a guy climbing a rope for some money that’s hanging at the top of the rope, only to fall down to a pack of rabid dogs. Once again showcasing the publics fascination with the morbid, kind of like the same principle we saw in shows like Fear Factor where we would delight in seeing others putting themselves in danger.

But don’t mistake The Running Man for a deep meaningful film. Essentially, after Ben Richards becomes part of The Running Man show, the movie turns into a silly cat and mouse game with the stalkers chasing after the convicts. Each stalker has a special ability. Fireball flies with a jet pack and uses a flamethrower. Dynamo sings opera as he shoots lightning bolts out of his special suit, Buzzsaw drives a motorcycle and wields a chainsaw at the same time and finally, Subzero plays ice hockey with exploding pucks! Unfortunately, the fun is taken right out of these characters because they each get wiped out by Arnold and his buddies in zero point five seconds. The director Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky of Starsky and Hutch!) really didn’t take his time in making these battle sequences special. At all. I mean what’s the use of coming up with these characters if your going to kill them in five seconds? It was really a wasted opportunity if you ask me. In a movie that is supposed to be filled with violence, and we are supposed to be repelled by how violent people have turned, there is not much of it. At least not on screen.

The film was based on a Stephen King novel of the same name, but no one, not even the films producers knew about this while making the film because King printed that novel under his pseudonym Richard Bachman and at the time, no one knew that Bachman was really King in disguise. Lot’s of changes where made from book to screen, originally the game takes place all over the world, and the runner could go to any part of the world, and the stalker would follow him wherever he went. Ben Richards was a family man, participating in the game only out of necessity because he had just lost his job. King himself feels that Arnold portrayed the character in a diametrically opposite way to the one he wrote. What you get in this movie is Arnold being Arnold. And you know what that means: one liners galore! He sometimes says a joke right before he kills somebody and sometimes after, and sometimes both! They had me cracking up through out the whole film.

Weirdest thing about this movie? Its all about rebellion, but in the film Arnold’s character isn’t much of a rebel. Yes, he sides with the rebels and helps them out, but as he says in the film “I’m not into politics, I’m into survival” which was kind of funny to hear Arnold say since he is at the time I write this the governor of California. He tells them that their opinion isn’t very popular these days and that they talk too much and do very little. I kind of see where they were going with these comments. These are very common accusations made at rebel camps. They are never organized, they dont have a leader, and they don’t do what they should be doing. I kind of agree with the guy. Still, in this film, the rebels win, so we can add this one to the list of films in which fictional revolutionaries beat the system!

Rating: 3 out of 5


Andrew said...

Great movie....
One of the pictures Schwarzenegger should be remembered for.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

I f'n love this movie. Ever since the VHS days of the late 1980s when my mom rented this one. I was a huge Schwarzenegger fan back in the day. He was my favorite action star of the 1980s. Not his greatest film, I agree, but it's definitely a memorable one. Excellent review. I really need to see this one again.

P.S. Richard Dawson is the MAN in this film. Just awesome in every way.

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

The Running Man was another film with an interesting premise and good source material, which was obviously tailored to Arnold Schwarznegger’s limited acting talents. Your observation that “In a movie that is supposed to be filled with violence, and we are supposed to be repelled by how violent people have turned, there is not much of it” is spot on. The fun cartoon-like villains are indeed dispatched far too quickly and with little visual flair.

It’s interesting that you bring up Robocop in your review. Robocop was released just four months after The Running Man in 1987 and they both explored similar themes concerning government, corporations and the media. Robocop is a far superior to The Running Man is every way. I’m sure much of this is due to Paul Verhoeen’s direction. Compare this with Paul Michael Glaser’s weak direction of The Running Man. There is good reason that Glaser’s last theatrical film was the deplorable Kazaam (1996) before he went back to directing for television.

You’re correct that for a film that is “all about rebellion, but in the film Arnold’s character isn’t much of a rebel”, because Arnold’s portrayal of Ben Richards is that of a man who is forced by circumstances to confront corporate villainy and not by his own personal chose.

Taken as light entertainment, The Running Man is good for some low-cal fun. Still, I prefer Arnold in Verhoveen’s Total Recall (1990), which still allowed the governator to crack heads and crack wise, but also portray a character with a modicum of depth.

Franco Macabro said...

@Andrew: I bought this film precisely because all my friends kept bugging me that they wanted to see it, but also because I remember loving it when I was a kid, so yeah, this is definetly not one of his lesser known films like 'The Villain' (1979).

@Fred: Agreed, I believe it was Richard Dawson who delivered the most memorable performance in the film. A despicable villain.

@Fritz: On the dvd extras they mentioned that they changed the story around to fit Arnolds limited acting capabilities, this is why he is no longer a guy without a job or a parent in the film. He is known a soldier wrongly accused and encarcerated.

Totally agree, Glasers weak direction is part of the what brings the movie down a bit, theres no style to it. Robocop is far superior, though similar in tone.

Interesting how you mentioned that he is forced to deal with corporate villainy, its true, its not in him to become a rebel, but circumstances force him to become one.

Totally agree about Total Recall, my friends and I were discussing which was the best Arnold film, and The Running Man didnt turn up in the list. Like you say, its a fun watch, but Total Recall and many others in Arnold's repertoire surpass it.

By the way, I hear they are remaking Total Recall with Colin Farrell playing Arnolds role and that it wont be taking place on Mars! Which kind of sucks...Total Recall without Mars? But the producers are saying that it will stick closer to the book (which I havent read) so maybe it will turn out to be a whole other kind of films.

Should be interesting. It is being directed by Len Wiseman, the guy behind the first two Underworld movies and Live Free or Die Hard. Im curious to see how this film will turn out.

Direct to Video Connoisseur said...

You can't go wrong with Arnold. Like The Predator, this film boasts two US State Governors, Schwarzenegger, and Jesse the Body.

Richard Dawson was more iconic at the time this film was made than any of the other actors. The Family Feud was made specifically as a spin-off for him, because he was so popular on the Match Game. Women just love an English accent. Some of the luster was wearing of his 70s fame, but if you look at the release date, 1987, most of the film's consumers would have grown up in the 70s, and remembered him vividly. It would be like Pat Sajak as a game show villain today, only not quite as cool. Dawson was one of my favorite aspects of The Running Man.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

An interesting novella from Stephen King, but an utterly abysmal and utterly stupid film. And people think movie audiences are dumb now? Great review though Franco :-)

odenat said...

but Shaun, but, but, i really like this movie. It may be stupid but i like watched it. Oh no, i'm dumb :)

Franco Macabro said...

@Direct to Video Connoisseur: Yeah, Family Feud lasted up until 1985, when it was canceled. Everyone still knew who Dawson was back then. Agree with ya, he was one of the coolest things about the movie. Him and those awesome sleds they put the convicts in! I loved that.

@Shaun: Yeah, stupid fun with a modicum of social commentary. Gotta give it at least that.

Unknown said...

The casting of Dawson aside, I just can't get behind this film and was bitterly disappointed by it when I saw it. I think that may come down to the fact that I read King's novella first and already had a pretty strong idea of what Ben and the world he inhabited should look like and the film WASN'T it! Man, what a bummer. I'd love to see this novella remade right. I could see someone like Russell Crowe as Ben and have either Michael Mann or Christopher Nolan direct. Actually, now that I think about it, Frank Darabont would be good also as he obviously has a real affinity for King's work.

Franco Macabro said...

I read the outline for what the novel is like and it really is very different, I mean the Runner can travel across the freaking world, he is not supposed to be confined to an obstacle course/wasteland like in the movie.

Agree, a remake that would stick more to the book would be interesting. This is something that can be done with a lot of films that deviate way to far from their source material like Blade Runner and Total Recall.

Hey, you can add Paul Veerhoven to the list of directors that would make interesting choices for a remake! He has that affinity for violence that would be great for a movie like this one.

Gerard Butler would make a good Ben Richards too, me thinks.

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

There are many sf novels that were made into films, but there are two that I’ve read the novels before seeing the movies that I was bitterly disappointed in.

Starship Troopers (1997) was an okay satire with some amazing effects work as directed by Paul Verhooven, but the novel of the same name (1959) by Robert E . Heinlein is a much more serious look at the military and how war affects world politics.

Freejack (1992) is an awful future action flick as directed by Geoff Murphy, which wastes a solid supporting cast of Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo on the leaden hero Emilio Estevez and the lumbering villain Mick Jagger. The much superior, if somewhat dated novel on which it is based on, Immortality, Inc. (1958) by Robert Sheckley is a deeper examination of human consciousness and social commentary.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree about Starship Troopers film, vastly different from the book. I especially missed those super suits that the soldiers have in the book, they were a big part of the novel, and would have made an awesome visual, I dont know why it was left out, but I would have loved to see those suits in action!

I always mention Phillip K. Dick's Do Android's Dream of Electrick Sheep as an example of how a film can be completely different then the novel. Blade Runner is a cinematic triumph, but it aint Phillip K. Dicks book!

I worship Ridley Scott's film, but the novel is a whole other creature! If they would make a film that stuck closely to the book, it would be a very different movie then the one we've seen.

Havent seen Freejack in years! I wouldnt mind giving it a re-watch.

Unknown said...

I thought that both RUMBLE FISH and SCANNER DARKLY were very faithful to their respective sources. In the case of SCANNER, I like that the end scroll just like the end of Dick's book where he lists all the friends, etc. who died from drugs.

Franco Macabro said...

Another good example of a film adaptation that stuck pretty close to its source material is SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the film is the book almost word for word.

Im going to be reading more Phillip K. Dick novels this year, I need to check out the one for TOTAL RECALL (We can remember it for you wholesale) and the one for A SCANNER DARKLY.

I Like Horror Movies said...

I have only seen this one in bits and pieces, but from what I remember, I dug it! RUNNING MAN actually needs to jump back on my list, after just seeing DEATH RACE 2000 for the first time, I could use a little RUNNING MAN. Thanks for another great review Franco!


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