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Monday, 28 November 2016

Weekend TV Movie Review: The Running Man (1987), Film 4 #Schwarzenegger

The Running Man
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jesse Ventura, Yaphet Kotto, Richard Dawson 
Genre: Science Fiction Technicolor Action 
US Box Office Gross: over $38 million 

Plot: In the year 2019, America is a totalitarian state where the favourite television programme is ''The Running Man'' - a game show in which prisoners must run to freedom to avoid a brutal death. Having been made a scapegoat by the government, an imprisoned Ben Richards has the opportunity to make it back to the outside again by being a contestant on the deadly show, although the twisted host, Damian Killian has no intention of letting him escape 

'A Pre-Cursor To The Reality TV Era of the 2000s & Beyond'

Years before we had reality TV, The Running Man in a way is seen as a precursor to this movement. This is American Gladiators meets Deathmatch meets Robocop - the satirical imagery that it borrows from Robocop through the cheesy commercials, along with that futuristic, apocalyptic feel, combined with game-show elements of American Gladiators where competitors compete against the toughest foes.

The Running Man is an interesting take on celebrity and Hollywood culture, it makes snipes at reality TV, at that programme-makers and producers manipulate audiences and viewers into what is real and what isn't, by editing the footage on purpose in order to gain higher viewership figures. 

Set in the year of 2017 (!) and loosely based on the Stephen King novel, cop Ben Richards is ordered by officers to shoot innocent, unarmed civilians and yet when he refuses, he is then arrested. Yet the state edits the footage to make Richards look like a criminal, thus dubbing him ''The Butcher of Bakersfield''. After escaping from a camp, presenter of the violent The Running Man game show with escaped convicts as contestants, Damon Killian (played by actual game-show host, Richard Dawson) sees footage of Richards and ropes him in as bait. With Ben Richards appearing on The Running Man as a contestant for real, he finds himself pitted against a wide range of opponents; with names such as Sub-Zero, the singing Christmas Tree in the shape of Dynamo, Buzzsaw and Captain Freedom played by former wrestler, Jesse ''The Body'' Ventura (who coincidentally enough was in Predator alongside Arnie). Characters that would fit right into any Saturday Morning Cartoon. But in this film, they provide very little tension and suspense that would have elevated The Running Man. There is also a strange cameo by Fleetwood Mac's Mick Fleetwood as one of the good guys.

Damian Killian is the slime-ball version of Simon Cowell: a TV host who has two sides to his character, likewise on television, he is smiling, polite, makes the audience laugh, kisses old ladies. He is the nation's darling. But off-camera, he is an arrogant, spiteful, control freak who loves the limelight.

The Running Man is effective as a movie that demonstrates how the world of television and entertainment and the media, when in the wrong hands, can be easily manipulated and twisted around, in order to attract viewers and for the viewers to fall for their tricks. It is a somewhat reflective piece that reflects the culture of worshipping violence and death as entertainment. When it was first released in 1987, critics and people at the time felt the idea of mass entertainment & the manipulation of the footage, was too far-fetched and not something that would happen in real life, years later. In re-watching it, it feels that The Running Man was ahead of its time & a precursor to reality TV that arrived less than 20 years later in the early 2000s. & though the game-show theme was replicated by The Hunger Games, it was this film that gave us a glimpse of that reality TV future. 

One scene that represents this, is a TV news segment when a reporter mentions that Ben Richards had killed the ticket agent and security guard - when in actuality, he hadn't. 

The movie's saving grace is Schwarzenegger himself who brings that charisma and likeability to his character, not to mention his one-liners. He tosses his one-liners like one would do with their salads. This was arguably only his second major/prime action movie role, following on from The Terminator, 4 years earlier. Had it not been for the casting of Arnie, The Running Man would have been a forgettable Z-list movie. His casting makes all the difference as a one-man army, who takes on, as well as takes out the foes with ease. Whereas the easily gullible and pathetic audience in this movie were cheering on and whooping for the likes of Sub-Zero and Buzzsaw to kill Ben and co, I was sitting in my seat, cheering on Ben to win. The supporting characters, on the other hand, were very weak and not that memorable. Maria Conchita Alonso wasn't as convincing here, compared to Predator 2. Yet The Running Man is more of a vehicle for Arnie's action-hero antics. 

Given this was made in the 1980s, the production values are all right for its time. The action was fun to watch, yet also it could have been a whole lot better conceived too. And yet in The Running Man, though it has come in for quite a lot of flak, it is a movie that I can easily look past the not-so-good script & the silly bad guy characters and just have fun with it. Some of the special effects are very 80s and for that period alone, it is good but today, it doesn't hold up well. It definitely has that fun factor, despite the heavy violence it evokes. I think had it been any more serious, it would have not worked so well; therefore, though for all the complaints about how cheesy and corny it is, that corniness lends itself to the superficiality and fakery of these types of TV shows that The Running Man exudes. 

Though Arnie has gone on to make better movies that followed right after The Running Man, it is still an Arnie cult classic that joins the ranks of Red Heat, Raw Deal and Commando, as good to very good Arnie flicks. Well, make that far better than Red Heat and Raw Deal.

Final Verdict:

Though it is considered by a lot of critics and film fans as one of Arnie's weaker movies, The Running Man, for me was a sheer blast and so watchable too. Highly entertaining from beginning to end with a simple, straightforward story and one that I'd rank in my top ten favourite Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Despite lacking that extra something that Terminator 2, True Lies and Total Recall has in abundance, it still has your standard Arnie one-liners, as well as being action-packed, and that it is a lot of fun.  

It may not impress a lot of people nowadays, yet The Running Man is still a movie I'd watch regardless today. 


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