The Running Man

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: In the near future, the revolting masses are distracted from the decay around them by a violent TV show in which the contestants are hunted to death by ‘stalkers’. Resistant former pilot and sometime prison absconder Ben Richards becomes the latest ‘runner’ to face the heavily armed foes, only he’s considerably better equipped than previous contestants. As the tables begin to turn, show producer/host Damon Killian finds his previously adoring audience turning on him.

It’s 2017, and the world economy has bitten the dust (perish the thought!). America has collapsed into a martial state where food riots are quashed by helicopter gunships; or they would be, except that compassionate pilot Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) refuses to open fire. Framed for the subsequent massacre anyway, Richards serves a stretch in prison alongside inmates Laughlin and Weiss (Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre); and although they effect an escape after eighteen months, and Richards gets as far as kidnapping Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso), the current occupant of his brother’s flat, she alerts security and he’s captured at the airport.

Richards, dubbed the ‘Butcher of Bakersfield’ for his supposed crimes, suddenly finds himself the latest star of hit TV show The Running Man, an ultra-violent contest in which ‘runners’ armed only with yellow Lycra suits try to survive against ‘stalkers’ with exotic titles and weapons, such as Sub Zero, Fireball, Dynamo and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). Laughlin and Weiss are also deposited in the game zone but don’t last the course, while Amber’s investigations into the truth about Richards result in her being jetted in too. With his muscles and military acumen, Richards is able to defeat Sub Zero and a querulous public start to ask questions of the show’s mastermind Damon Killian (Richard Dawson). What’s more, if Richards can lead them to Mick Fleetwood’s Resistance, Amber has information that could bring Killian and his vile network down permanently.

Let’s not get too hung up on the originality or otherwise of The Running Man, based on Richard Bachman/Stephen King’s novel, whether it’s inspired mainly by Robert Sheckley’s story The Prize of Peril or Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, and whether it itself inspired American Gladiators, The Hunger Games and so on. And let’s not bother too much about the political subtext, since Glaser isn’t too fussed; he only understands, or wants to understand, the surface of the story and the possibilities it affords to admire the choreography and leotards of the show’s leggy dance troupe.

No, let’s get to the heart of the matter and discuss just how bad the acting is. The Running Man makes me appreciate that there’s a profound difference between great acting, workmanlike acting that nonetheless passes muster, and the thing that’s on display here, which is wretched non-acting of the worst kind. It’s only to be expected that the wrestlers who fill out the ‘stalker’ roles are hammy, while the decision to populate the forces of the Resistance with Dweezil Zappa and Mick Fleetwood (that’s right, the drummer out of Fleetwood Mac) has predictable results. Fleetwood gives a master class in how to look and sound like you don’t know what you’re doing, in a non-performance so bad that his notorious presenting stint at the Brit Awards seems almost competent by comparison. A former Miss Venezuela, Alonso’s acting chops are nothing to write home about either, but they all pale next to Schwarzenegger’s awfulness whenever he’s asked to do anything more complicated than chomp on a cigar or deliver a punning one-liner, though fans will be glad to know that ‘I’ll be back’ is present and correct. The way Arnold fails to convince as a humanitarian in the first few minutes is staggering, and he doesn’t improve much as the film progresses.

Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t entertaining; in its colourful, cheesy 80s way, The Running Man is good, violent fun, certainly more so than the dour Rollerball. However, any point it’s trying to make about the future of society, culture or television is completely overlooked amongst the sheen of the lycra, the dancers, the fancy chutes through which the ‘runners’ are launched into the game, Schwarzenegger’s deadeye handiness with a machine gun or the fanciful computer wizardry Killian resorts to towards the climax. It’s as though Glaser and screenwriter Steven E. de Souza deliberately rejected any notion of intelligent film-making in a quest to fashion an archetypal Arnold action movie; then again, looking at de Souza’s credits, he appears to plough this particular furrow quite a lot – for better (Die Hard) or worse (Street Fighter). It’s left to Richard Dawson to carry the show as aggressive, egotistical gameshow host Damon Killian; Dawson is really rather good in the role, and that’s coming from someone who only found out he had genuinely hosted gameshows* whilst writing this review.

Elsewhere, a few moments of true invention escape, almost by accident: Ben is not given a lawyer but a ‘court-appointed theatrical agent’ who signs Richards’ rights away and gets stabbed in the back for his troubles; there’s also a glimpse of a show entitled Climbing for Dollars, a decent enough joke if lacking the bite of Robocop’s TV satires. By and large, however, the abiding memory of The Running Man is as a dumb and vaguely pitiful failure, only watchable because you’re laughing at the film rather than engaging with it as its makers intended.

NOTES: Dawson was the original host of Family Feud, which arrived in Britain as Family Fortunes.

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