Tuesday, April 26, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Running Man (1987)

"This is television, that's all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it's to do with ratings! For fifty years, we've told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear.  For Christ's sake, Ben, don't you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give 'em what they want! We're number one, Ben, that's all that counts, believe me."

-Damon Killian, in The Running Man (1987) 

Based on a 1982 sci-fi novel by Richard Bachman (Stephen King, actually), the motion picture version of The Running Man (1987) arrived in theaters during the Great Year of Arnold Schwarzenegger; the very season that also brought audiences John McTiernan's Predator. 

Although viewers typically and rightly associate Schwarzenegger with action films, The Running Man ably and rather surprisingly functions best as a satire of American television and politics.  

While the writing and performances in this dystopian film tend towards the razor sharp, the action sequences in the film don't always hold up as well. They feel episodic, dull, predictable and repetitive.  To be certain, the film is a highly entertaining experience from start to finish, but never, precisely, the adrenalin-inducing thrill ride that some action fans might hope for or expect.  Still, it seems the film's trademark action scenes did inspire a real life competition TV series entitled American Gladiators (1989 - 1996), right down to the spandex costumes.

Bachman/King's literary version of The Running Man remains far more grim, serious and spectacular in approach than the Schwarzenegger film, a fact which makes the possibility of a more source-faithful movie adaptation a possibility, especially in this age of remakes.  The novel as you may recall, is set in a totalitarian America in 2025 and involves a man, Ben Richards, "running" on a popular TV program so as to pay for expensive medicine for his ailing daughter. 

The movie version eliminates this important character background and motivation, as well as the novel's incendiary, unforgettable ending; one which transforms Richards from a game show contestant to a bonafide enemy of the state and so-called "terrorist." 

In other words, the 1987 movie version is less interested in creating real, identifiable characters and building a believable dystopian future world than it is in commenting humorously (if accurately) on aspects of our own world.  Not there's anything wrong with that.  Like I wrote above, it's the biting satire of American media and politics that makes The Running Man a rewarding film to watch over twenty years after it was released.  If anything, the film's observations about our entertainment seems only more apt in 2013, after ten years+ of reality television programming.

The movie version of The Running Man actually has much more in common with Roger Corman and Paul Bartel's trail-blazing Death Race 2000 (1975) than King's literary portrait of a totalitarian future America.  In both Death Race 2000 and The Running Man, the media and the government have joined forces -- through a popular TV show -- to divert  the attention of the poverty-stricken masses.  While the country fails, these "bread and circuses" successfully keep the populace distracted from real problems, namely the class warfare between the haves and the have-nots.  In both films, the popular TV show overtly focuses on bloodshed and violence, either in the form of a cross-country race or a pedestrian chase.

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, The Running Man also shares much in common with another great 1987 science fiction movie, Verhoeven's RoboCop.  To wit, both cinematic endeavors feature short, satirical commercials and imagery that reveal, at length, how crass and stupid network television can really be.  Ironically, considering Schwarzenegger's presence, The Running Man also shares RoboCop's  anti-establishment suspicion of the ascendant right wing in America during the eighties. 

Where RoboCop humorously depicted the end result of privatizing anything and everything in America, including the police force, The Running Man gazes more directly at the cult of celebrity in America and the ever-increasing blending of politics and entertainment. 

Lest we forget it, a Hollywood actor was President of the United States in 1987 and, because of his advanced age, some folks considered him more a showman by many than an actual leader in terms of policy and administration.   The Running Man takes that premise further, envisioning a wholesale blending of entertainment and politics at every level of government. 

For instance, at one point in the film, Killian (game show host Richard Dawson) barks "Get me the Justice Department...Entertainment Division."  In the same scene, he orders an underling to "get me the President's agent."  In another sequence, "court-appointed talent agents" are discussed.

The idea here is that Hollywood and politics are a match made in Heaven (or is it Hell?).  Both Hollywood and Washington D.C. focus on the same important task: selling imagery and fantasy, not reality, to an American populace desperately seeking hope, truth and justice.

The film is even more cynical (and wonderful) than that.  It suggests that concepts such as justice are all just a game, anyway...a spin of the wheel of fortune.  And in the world of The Running Man, freedom isn't even on the board.  You can win such great prizes (if you're lucky...) as "trial by jury," "suspended sentence" and even "a full pardon," but real liberty is absent.  

"I'm not into politics.  I'm into survival."

The Running Man is set in the year 2019.  The World Economy has collapsed and food, oil and natural resources are in short supply all over the United States. 

Because of these crises, a police state has arisen in America.  No dissent is tolerated, and television is controlled and created entirely by the State.

Helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is arrested by his fellow officers when he refuses to open fire on unarmed civilians during an urban food riot.  But the State manipulates video footage of this event and thus transforms the innocent Richards into "The Butcher of Bakersfield." 

This is another example of government's manipulation of media, and media imagery in the film; the transformation of a real-life hero into a hiss-able villain for wide-scale public consumption.  An easily digestible image or sound-bite is packaged and sold, rather than a possibly-damaging, harder-to-countenance reality.

Richards  is sent to a work camp and spends the next eighteen months there.  After an escape from the labor camp, Ben Richards is apprehended by authorities thanks to lovely, Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso), a citizen who believes the lies about "The Butcher."  When Damon Killian (Dawson), host of the number one TV show, The Running Man, sees news footage of Richards in action, the ratings-hungry showman realizes he's discovered the next great star.  He quickly negotiates to have Ben Richards turned over to him.

Richards reluctantly appears on The Running Man, a game show in which contestants run for their lives...against terrible odds.  There, he is pitted against government "heroes" -- really bloodthirsty killers --with names such as Sub-Zero, Bloodlust, Buzzsaw, Dynamite and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). 

However, if Richards can hook up with the People's Network, a growing resistance movement, and gain control of the Running Man transmission, Killian may have a few surprises coming his way...

Mr. Richards, I'm your court-appointed theatrical agent.

The Running Man works overtime, and with more than a modicum of cleverness, to create a world in which image and reality don't match up. 

Again, this is what I have often termed the Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid/Don't Worry Be Happy duality of the decade. 

Americans were asked in the 1980s to believe that they could spend (much) more on national defense and pay lower taxes and shrink government all at the same time. 

This was the essence of  the argument in 1980, but by 1988, government had grown considerably, adding 61,000 Federal jobs to Washington.  Also, taxes were raised three times, in 1983 (gas tax), in 1984, and in the Tax Reform Act of 1986.  Finally, America piled on  2.7 trillion dollars to the national debt in those eight years.  The people were sold the very appealing mantra of lower taxes, smaller government and affordable defense, but that was not what was delivered by Washington D.C.

The Running Man reflects the huge gap between reality and fantasy that we saw in real life during those years.  Damon Killian -- whose name always makes me think of Simon Cowell --  is a character who puts on a face of love and kindness for audiences.  He kisses old ladies, and hand-holds nervous contestants.   But he is actually a mean-spirited, power-mad, control-freak.  In one scene, Killian nearly trips on a newly waxed floor in his office building.  An employee apologizes to him, and Killian graciously accepts the apology to the employee's face. As soon as the custodian is gone, Killian orders him to be fired.

This is just one small example of the reality/imagery gap.  As mentioned above, Killian has the Bakersfield food riot videotape edited so that it presents a lie, the very opposite of the truth.  A man who should be lauded as a hero, Richards, is instead despised as a villain...all so Killian can get better ratings.  Similarly, Killian makes another attempt to deceive audiences late in the film, utilizing "traveling mattes" and other state-of-the-art special effects techniques to make it appear as though Richards is killed in the contest when, in fact, he has escaped unharmed.

Another of Killian's lies: last season's winners on The Running Man are not celebrating on a tropical beach somewhere, they've been murdered by Killian. 

Described succinctly, everything Killian does in public and for the TV show is a show.  It bears no resemblance to reality.  It's just show business...but this behavior is especially sinister in the film because lives are on the line, and the movie has explicitly connected show business to politics and government.

The people of America aren't exactly spared harsh criticism by this satire either.  Although Killian repeatedly discusses "traditional morality" and such on The Running Man, the people in America are actually nourished on a steady diet of violence, avarice and perversion. 

We see this fact exemplified in one of the commercials made for the film, Climbing for Dollars, which shows hungry dogs nipping at the feet of contestants as they climb a rope, scrambling to collect money.  At another point, we see a poster for a television series entitled "The Hate Boat."   Again, this is not traditional morality, it's sex and violence as governmental distraction or sleight-of-hand. 

The audience members watching The Running Man are particularly fickle too.  At first they mourn when their gladiators die in battle.  But soon enough, they are hooting and hollering in favor of Richards, the very man who killed their "favorites."  Again, the projected image is one of decency and traditional values, but it's not real.  "Words can't express" how sad the audience feels at the loss of their heroes says Killian.  But then he cuts to commercials, and sells more "Cadre Cola."   Apparently mourning can't get in the way of making a few bucks.  And the audience can't even remember who they were rooting for before the commercial break.  

The Running Man works efficiently as a satire because it reveals so well how films and TV can, in the wrong hands, be utterly manipulated and manipulative.  The film's master-stroke regarding this leitmotif involves the casting of Richard Dawson, former host of Family Feud.  Hiring Dawson was a real coup, because he very ably mocks his familiar game show persona but then layers on the screen character's private, caustic face.   Dawson makes for an extraordinary villain by playing on our expectations and then totally subverting them. 

In The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted: "Mr. Dawson, who was the host of television's long-running ''Family Feud'' game show, is wonderfully comic as a fellow who'd star his own beloved dad as the ''running man'' if it would buy him a few points. His hair always perfectly blow-dried, his haberdashery immaculate, Mr. Dawson steals the movie as a personality composed of equal parts of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore (Mickey) Robespierre."

More than the imposing Schwarzenegger, Dawson is the fuel that drives The Running Man, making it so very wicked, so much fun, and seemingly so real.   That established, this is also one of the Governator's most impressive film performances. The Washington Post wrote: "Pumped and primed for self-parody, the burly star proves as funny as he is ferocious in this tough guy's commentary on America's preoccupation with violence and game shows."  I agree with that review as well.  If Dawson is willing to mock his public image here (and he is), Schwarzenegger courageously goes down that same path with him, even mimicking his most famous screen line, "I'll be back," and opening himself up for Dawson's great comeback.

"Only in reruns..."

There's something very post-modern happening here.  The Running Man tackles the unholy juncture of television and politics at the same time that it playfully pivots off our intimate knowledge and affection for Dawson's and Schwarzenneger's familiar screen personas.  It's a very, very...meta equation, for lack of a better term.

I only wish that the action scenes in The Running Man were a little more varied, a little less predictable  A killer is called on stage, and then he goes in to hunt Richards.  Richard is victorious and it's time for another hunter.  Rinse and repeat.  Ad nauseum.  Watching the film, you get the distinct sense that all of the talent was energized by the film's witty ideas, but that the action scenes were sort of left to fend for themselves.

Still, The Running Man isn't out of steam, even today.  It gets a lot of the "future" detail just right.  From fears of an economic collapse to fuel shortages, the film makes some pretty accurate guesses about the 2010s.  At one point, Ben Richards books his escape route/travel itinerary on an interactive television set, a precursor to something we do on the Internet now all the time. 

And also, of course, this 1987 film seems to understand that our television and politics were headed towards a generation of ingrained and unimaginable cruelty.

It's not a pretty picture, but I bet that with just a few tweaks here and there, Killian's The Running Man would be a pretty big hit with some people these days....


  1. Harlan Ellison right points out that Dawson was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nom dues to the film's lackluster nature.

  2. Christian,

    I agree with Ellison. Dawson should have been nominated. He's one of The Running Man's great strengths, for sure.

    Great comment.


  3. The casting of Dawson aside, I really did not care for this film and I think that's because I read the novel first and King creates such a vivid, gritty dystopia that the cinematic adaptation falls flat on pretty much every level. Arnie was just the wrong person to play Ben from the word go. If they were to remake it today, I could see someone like Russell Crowe and Jeremy Renner and get someone like Darren Aronofsky to direct and give the grungy, grittiness the story really deserves. I guess, I feel so letdown by this film because the novel is my fave of Kings - I actually like almost all of the stories in the Bachman book. Supposedly, Frank Darabont is trying to get THE LONG WALK made, which I would love to see him tackle but, as he points out, he'd have to make it independently because of the downbeat ending.

  4. A wonderful and insightful examination of this film, John. I think you hit it squarely -- and yes, the action sequences are its weakness. The story, this screen version, has proven to be quite prophetic. I do see, J.D.'s point though that SK's source material is still yearning to be told, and in a more gritty manner. Great piece. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for the pics of Dawson... Mmmmm! :)

  6. Thanks for the awesome article, keep it on! :)