Movie Review: The Running Man

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An innocent man is arrested and forced to participate in a game show where he has to kill or be killed.

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Paul Michael Glaser, 1987

In the dystopian future of 2019, capitalism and hyperviolence rule people’s lives. Disgraced former cop Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is serving his time in a prison camp, having been arrested when he refused to shoot a bunch of innocent people who just wanted food. The media has painted him as the perpetrator of the ensuing massacre. Being the man he is, Richards escapes the inescapable prison system, with the help of some anti-government computer nerd rebels. While on the run, he meets Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso), game show music composer and the only person in the country whose accent is thicker than his. He takes her hostage, but she’s smart and gets away, getting him captured again. Now Richards must compete on The Running Man, the most popular show on Dystopia TV. He must fight for his life against vicious, high-tech assassins or “stalkers”. Charismatic host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) promises him his freedom should he survive, but adds twist after twist to ensure that won’t happen.

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The Running Man is a curious film. It is one of the earlier examples of the “killer game show” genre, though credit should really go to Stephen King, who wrote the book on which the film is based. Still, as a predecessor to films like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, it’s an interesting idea. The execution, however, is horribly botched. I say that with a heavy heart, as I just discovered that it’s directed by Paul Michael Glaser, AKA Starsky of Starsky and Hutch, whom I adore. There are some fun, bombastic 80s action scenes in the film. It’s a high octane ride, starting off with a bang and rarely pausing to catch its breath. The problem is there’s nothing to recommend about Ben Richards. He’s ostensibly a hero for not murdering innocent women and children, but 90% of his actions paint him as a complete asshole. He straight up kidnaps Amber after completely terrorising her. It seems as though their banter is supposed to be flirty, but really it seems like the two of them hate each other for the entire movie until the script says “they kiss” on the last page. (This is not a spoiler.)

It certainly doesn’t help that most of the lines are incomprehensible or incompetently written. There are some corny quips, but none quite match Arnie’s other famous lines (and some even directly reference them – he says “I’ll be back” to Killian at one stage. Cue groaning). It also doesn’t help that the plot is scattershot at best. The climax is confusing, and Richards’ link to the rebels tenuous at best. The concept of the show isn’t fully developed – Killian is just evil, and there’s not much exploration of the cultural effects of the show, or the reasons for it. The closest it gets to satire is when Killian interviews a couple of nervous audience members about which stalker they want to send in. There’s also a bizarre bit with Jesse Ventura that I assume exists because he refused to play a bad guy in anything. Fortunately, Richard Dawson provides some genuine entertainment as Killian. In all this insanity, he’s actually believable, because he’s so convincingly charming at yet so downright dastardly in the name of ratings. The movie is still borderline unwatchable, though, and not a patch on the era’s classics or Arnie’s best films.

The Running Man on IMDb

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