Monday, April 20, 2015
SCHWARZENEGGER SWEEPS: The Running Man (1987)
“death sports” movies. The undisputed peaks of the quasi-subgenre were “Rollerball” and “Death Race 2000.” (With the low point probably being, ironically, “Deathsport.”) The genre was well suited to the seventies, a decade interested in cerebral sci-fi, social satire, nihilism, and intense violence. You could even think of the current “Battle Royale / Hunger Games” craze as a modern example of this. Anyway, a little while after the genre’s heyday, Stephen King wrote a pretty decent death sport novel called “The Running Man” and published it under his late pseudonym Richard Bachman. Somehow, this book wound up in the hands of super-producer Rob Cohan, who decided he had to turn it into a movie. The project cycled through many different writers and directors before Arnold Schwarzenegger came on-board. When he entered the picture, King’s bleak, intense book immediately became an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, full of goofy one-liners, comic book violence, and eighties camp.
In the distant future year of 2017, the world’s economy has collapsed and America is now a dystopian civilization ruled by corporations. (This is probably what will happen if Rand Paul gets elected president.) The opiate of the masses is a game show called the Running Man, where convicted prisoners race against trained killers in a bid to win pardons. Ben Richards is a cop working for the system. When he refuses to fire on unarmed, innocent protestors, the government paints him as a killer and sends him to prison. Eventually, Ben and a few friends escape. Their freedom is short-lived, as all three are captured and forced to compete on the Running Man. The system, however, didn’t count on Arnold Schwarzenegger.
a dark thriller, which plays out in an entirely different fashion, and ends with its hero flying a plane into a skyscraper. The movie maintains pretty much none of that darkness. Well, a little bit. At the very beginning, “The Running Man” does an okay job of painting a dystopian future. The set design for the film is appropriately dark. Using technology that seemed cutting edge back in 1987, and seems hilariously dated now, the corporation manipulates the facts, recutting real events to suit their narrative. The early scene of Arnold and his companions in prison, exploding collars around their neck and militant guards shooting at them, gives you an idea of how this story could have played out in a very different manner.
However, that’s not the kind of movie “The Running Man” is. As soon as the Running Man game is introduced, the film totally shifts, becoming a broad, satirical parody of eighties game shows. Viewers watch at home, in the streets, and in the studio audiences. They cheer on their favorite stalkers, taking bets, and winning home editions of the game. The contestants are dressed in garish spandex suits. They ride ridiculous rocket sleds into the game area. There are even oh-so-eighties back-up dancers, choreographed by Paula Abdul no less. Everything is corporate sponsored. The guys in the editing room stress out about making a narrative out of real events. Most prominent is Richard Dawson, doing a wild riff on his own “Family Feud” persona, as someone who smoozes with the audience, is condescending to players, and acts like an asshole behind the scenes. It’s a pretty obvious spoof of the public’s obsession with game shows. It’s also a pretty funny one. It’s very campy but still oddly subversive, like when you have Jesse Ventura dancing in a unitard during a fitness show.
the Stalkers, the trained killers that hunt the show’s contestants. Instead of just having non-distinct murderers, the film pushes so far in the other direction. The Stalkers are cartoonish super villains. Each one comes with a ridiculous gimmick. Subzero, played with a brickwall-like physique by Toru Tanaka, is a hockey player from hell, slicing things with a razor-lined hockey stick, tossing his victims into a net, and shooting exploding pucks. Buzzsaw has an almost sexual obsession with his chainsaw and takes great delight in dismembering people with it. Fireball, played by action icon of years past Jim Brown, flies around on a jet pack and carries a flamethrower. The stupidest, and thus my favorite, is Dynamo, an obese opera singer who shoots lightening bolts. Each character is decked in ridiculous outfits. Such as Subzero’s steel thong or Dynamo’s glittering armor. It’s all goofy as hell and, as a fan of eighties cheese, immediately endearing. You’re unlikely to see something as good-naturedly silly and sincerely campy in a modern blockbuster these days.
As entertaining as the Stalkers are, this is Arnold’s show. Ben Richards, a thin, course anti-hero in King’s book, becomes Arnold Fucking Schwarzenegger in the movie. He’s a man of principals, refusing to kill innocent victims. But when push comes to shove, he becomes the expected Schwarzeneggerian killing machine. During the prison escape, he’s shooting a machine gun and tossing guys over railings. Once in public, he brutally interrogates Maria Conchita Alonso, threatening to snap her neck or pushing the exercise machine he’s tied her to out a window. Once in the games, he cooks up last minute schemes to take down the Stalkers, often using their own gimmicks against them. He strangles Subzero with barb wire, saws through Buzzsaw crotch-first, and explodes Fireball. During each murder, he shouts the most satisfying, ridiculous one-liners imaginable. This is why Arnold is the King of the One-Liners. Even relatively awkward ones like “Subzero… Plain zero!” becomes poetry in the brawny Austrian’s hands. Simpler jokes like “How ‘bout a light?” or “He had to split” are practically musical. Without Arnold obviously having such a good time, “The Running Man” would probably be a little too self-aware in its silliness. With Arnold, it becomes perfect camp snack food.
Schwarzenegger criticized director Paul Michael Glaser, otherwise known as friggin’ Starksy, for making the movie look like a TV show. I can’t agree with Arnold on this one. “The Running Man” is atmospherically shot, with deep blues, bright reds, and a generally evocative visual sense. The supporting cast is full of great names. Jesse Ventura, back when he was an unusually self-aware pro-wrestler instead of a full blown conspiracy theorist, is hilarious as Captain Freedom. Freedom takes his job really seriously despite dancing on an infomercial. Yaphett Kotto, as one of the revolutionaries, is also seemingly unaware of how damn goofy the movie is. He maintains his dramatic composure even while dressed in unflattering silver spandex. Dawson is hilarious and Alonso is a capable foil to Schwarzenegger. And you’ve got to love that cheesy, driving eighties synth score, which includes a clinching, earnest love ballad over the end credits.
[THE SIGNS OF SCHWARZENEGGER: 5 outta 5]
[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[X] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[X] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm