The World According to Arnie: The Running Man (1987)
There have been an awful lot of adaptations of Stephen King’s work. According to the internets, not counting short films or episodes of a TV show (such as the X-Files), the number sits at 62. And counting. There is a pretty even split across Film and Television, with some even doubling up, such as Carrie and The Shining. Most of them remain unseen by me (something that is unlikely to change in the future), but the one’s I have seen tend to fall in either one of two categories. Brilliant or Terrible. There seems to be no middle ground with Stephen King.
Briefly during the late 70’s and early 80’s King was writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Apparently, since the done thing in those days was for an author to release no more than one novel per year, and King was in a
coke writing frenzy, he convinced his publisher to print novels using this pseudonym. None of the books released under the Bachman name are recognised amongst Kings best work, but there was one intriguing story about a dystopian future America, where the totalitarian government kept the masses placated by a sadistic game show featuring professional killers tracking and killing contestants. The longer you live the more money is bequeathed to your family after your death. If you survive a month, you win the jackpot. Obviously no one survived the month, because along with the professional killers, the game show paid cash rewards to people who called in tips. Kings book is slight, with 100 chapters counting down to zero, but it’s quite an effective, angry one. ‘The Running Man’ was inevitably adapted into a wildly different feature film starring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the result was a lot less angry and a lot more awesome.
It’s the year 2017 and the future is bleak. America is a totalitarian police state, with heavy censorship, strong arm policing and the general oppression of the masses. As the film opens, Ben Richards (Arnie), a military helicopter pilot, refuses to fire on unarmed civilians participating in a protest rally. He is relieved of his command (via one of those amusing movie one punch knock outs) and framed as ‘The Butcher of Bakersfield’, the man who led the massacre of those civilians. After a couple of years working in a prison flame and steam factory, Ben and a couple of his fellow prisoners escape (they temporarily disable the explosive collars they wear). But after kidnapping Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso) and attempting to flee the country, he is recaptured. But instead of heading back to prison, he’s caught the eye of Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), the host of the popular game show ‘The Running Man’, which sees criminals compete against vicious killers for their freedom.
‘The Running Man’ is hilarious fun. The film dumps the anger of the book and plants its tongue firmly in cheek. With a wink to the audience, the film barrels through its silly plot with abandon. Structured like a video game, where Arnie must go toe to toe with a boss to proceed to the next level, every enemy is despatched with a one liner delivered for maximum comedic effect. In true justice style the stalkers, including Professor Subzero, Buzzsaw, Dynamo, Fireball and Captain Freedom, are bumped off with their own weapon. And while it’s an incredibly violent affair, there’s no gore, and its tone is always comedic and charmingly goofy. Such as when Arnie turns the table on Buzzsaw, giving him some of his own medicine right in the family jewels. With blood splattering his face ol’ Buzz goes out singing soprano. The scene is capped when Arnie is asked “What happened to Buzzsaw?” In his usual perfect comedic timing, Arnie deadpans the payoff line, “He had to split.” It’s stupid, but the film knows it, and that’s where the fun lies.
Arnie continues his good form of comedic action movies, following on from the brilliant ‘Commando’. It took a few movies for him to find his groove, but considering he’s not the most naturally gifted actor in the world, it’s quite an impressive change from the terrible, wooden performance in ’Hercules in New York’. Another of the great things about ‘The Running Man’ is that it surrounds Arnie with entertaining actors. Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre as his two prison buddies are good actors, and Kotto in particular always has great screen presence. I’ve always enjoyed Maria Conchita Alonso’s performances. She’s has a fiery, spunky, personality that proves instantly likeable, and here she and Arnie make a good team. She also serves as more than a damsel in distress, becoming suspicious of the TV studio’s manipulation of news footage, and investigates the Bakersfield Massacre on Arnies behalf. The stalkers aren’t really developed as individuals, with only Dynamo, a big, fat, effete opera singing douchebag, and Jesse Ventura’s Captain Freedom coming across with any personality of their own, but that doesn’t particularly matter too much.
The real villain of the film, and the most memorable performance, is Richard Dawson as the game show host Damon Killian. A real life host of ‘Family Feud’, Dawson sends up his own image with a brilliantly self-aware, scene chewingly over the top performance. He steals the show and is very, very funny as sleazy double crossing host. The fact that he was a real life game show host, sending up his own image with glee, just makes the performance even more entertaining. It’s a terrific, memorable performance, and it’s kind of a shame he didn’t try his hand at acting in more films. He seems like a natural.
Capably directed by Paul Michael Glaser, a former actor (he was Starsky on the ‘Starsky and Hutch’ TV show), ‘The Running Man’ was his second feature film. Like Mark L. Lester did with ‘Commando’, Glaser understands the tone of the film perfectly, and doesn’t try to overdo anything. It’s a solidly directed film, and is exactly all it needs to be. Anyone who’s attempted to sit through the god awful
ripoff similarly themed movie ‘Gamer’ knows how unwatchable an over-directed film can be. By some miracle I made it 20 minutes through that crap. The only other Glaser film I’ve seen is ‘The Air Up There’, starring Kevin Bacon, which was a nice, if forgettable film.
The film touches on some slyly subversive satire, directed at the thronging masses. The TV audiences who allow themselves to be distracted from real world issues by mindless television. But it’s not explored (an Arnie film isn’t the right place for a strong message) and is used for mostly comedic effect.
‘The Running Man’ was one of the Arnie films I grew up on, when my Dad brought it home for me. I enjoyed it for its silly, colourful, goofy attitude, and it remains in the top tier of Arnie films. This truly is a magic run for the Austrian Oak.