35 years ago: ‘The Running Man’ runs far behind ‘RoboCop’

Being released just four months after Paul Verhoeven’s similarly dystopian satire RoboCop 1987 didn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man any services in retrospect. Like RoboCop, The Running Man suggests a near future where corporate-backed fascism is on the rise and the poor masses are appeased with low-brow programming and lying propaganda. (Both films’ settings are also close enough to their 1987 release dates that the intrusion of their high-concept technologies takes place among some cheaply recognizable urban environments.)

But while RoboCop had the flamboyantly imaginative Verhoeven pulling the satirical strings, Schwarzenegger was saddled with TV star-turned-director Paul Michael Glaser (of Starsky and Hutch fame) to fashion The Running Man‘s over-the-top world of bloodthirsty game shows and outsized costumed killers. Glaser, who had made his directorial debut with the previous year’s crime-vs.-druggie Everglades actioner The band of the hand, brought a decidedly cramped and rushed television style to the film’s bombastic action. In a fictional America where convicted criminals are unleashed on a funhouse-style killing field and hunted by superstar-dressed “stalkers,” Glaser’s images narrow the action as he depicts Schwarzenegger’s many fight scenes in energizing close-ups and expert editing.

It is especially crippling since The Running Man was meant to give rising action icon Schwarzenegger a big, flashy, gory cartoon of a star vehicle. Producer Rob Cohen reportedly had no idea that the film’s new source material was written by eminently bankable horror writer Stephen King, as the 1982 book was written under King’s Richard Bachman pseudonym. The film contains no on-screen mention of King’s involvement, while the film’s more goofy tone omits much of King’s gritty nihilism (including the book’s eerie, pre-9/11 airplane-based climax). But it’s clear that Cohen’s take on the project was wildly different from King’s. At any rate, the original tale merely retains the core game-show concept while ditching King’s much uglier milieu in favor of pitting Schwarzenegger’s disgraced cop Ben Richards against a similarly huge, flamboyantly decorated killer. The film also firmly follows the Schwarzenegger formula of smiley post-kill one-liners, with his protagonist dropping ready-made quips as he dispatches his opponents. (“He had to break up,” Richards tells reluctant sidekick Maria Conchita Alonso after cruelly dismembering stalker Buzzsaw with his own weapon.)

Schwarzenegger, fresh from a string of solid post-Terminator hits, flexes his Hollywood muscles in the lead role. His Ben Richards sports a sweatshirt for the Schwarzenegger-owned World’s Gym for part of the film, while the star, even in the squalor of a revolutionary’s shantytown or in the midst of a climactic raid on the titular game show’s shiny studios, can always rattle off one of the ​​his signature cigars up. Meanwhile, the testosterone-fueled cast includes longtime Schwarzenegger bodybuilder pals like Sven-Ole Thorsen and Franco Columbu in small roles, while Schwarzenegger’s allegedly framed everyman Richards is not only insanely bloated, but faces every situation with the actor’s by-then-ubiquitous curriculum. worthy bon mots. (The film even has Richards warn his nemesis when sent via rocket sled into the game zone, “I’ll be back,” contributing to The Running Manis all Arnold wants cheesiness.)

What The Running Man is going on, it’s one piece inspired casting in the form of an actor and ex Family feud hosted by Richard Dawson. As the dapper Damon Killian, Dawson ups the ante as a sleazy fake lady-kissing game-show lizard. Dawson scouts potential contestant victims for his government-backed TV business, grabbing footage of the burly Richards’ escape from a government prison, purring, “Hey, cutie pie,” with visions of smashing ratings in his eyes. It’s in Killian’s character that The Running Man comes closest to approaching the sledgehammer corporate satire of Verhoeven’s vastly superior film (a poster for another TV hit The Hate Boat is about as smart as The Running Man sheep), with the smug host demanding – after initially being thwarted in his attempt to recruit the on-the-run Richards – to speak to the Justice Department’s “entertainment division”. (And finally “agent of the president”).

The Running Man‘s central conceit falls under the bread-and-circus future dystopia genre, with the spectacle of Killian’s weekly televised manhunt vigilantly depicted as the one thing keeping the oppressed masses numbed enough to not rise up against the government. (Chopper pilot Richards’ crime is not following orders to mow down unarmed civilians engaged in a “food riot”.) As in Cleanse, The Hunger Games, The tenth victim, Series 7: The Contenders and other such high-concept genre exercises, it’s best not to inquire too deeply into the logic behind it The Running Mans murder-as-pacification approach to population control, especially since the film is far more concerned with seeing Schwarzenegger take down an increasingly outlandish array of enemies. Still, Dawson’s snarling, gleeful showman goes a long way toward at least selling the idea that a little bloody razzle-dazzle can distract the masses with glittering bloodlust (and copies of The Running Man home game). “It’s a contact sport,” Killian explains to a panicked official after Schwarzenegger manages to kill one of his fan-favorite pursuers.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Running Man’

Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger’s indestructible protagonist is far less interesting, except as a vehicle for the star’s perpetually browning constellation. After escaping from his first prison (along with the more human fellow inmates Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre), Richards mocks his partners’ revolutionary ambitions, Schwarzenegger casually calling them “a bunch of low-brows who think they can change the world with dreams and talk.” (The rebel leader is played by a rocker Mick Fleetwood who, it’s cleverly hinted throughout, may be intended to be the actual Mick Fleetwood, masterminding the revolution along with henchman Dweezil Zappa.) Yet Richards had previously landed himself in his predicament by suddenly refusing to follow the orders of a tyrannical government which he has happily enforced for several years.

Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards alternates between slick self-interest and crusading revolutionary from Steven E. de Souza’s script, seen most gruesomely as Richards abducts innocent bystander Maria Conchita Alonzo to help him escape the country.

The massive fugitive breaks into her apartment (formerly that of his never-seen brother, who has been sent for “re-education”) and immediately ties up the lingerie-clad woman, steals her money and passport, threatens to blackmail her with her collection of government-recorded music (on cassette, of course) and to seal her cooperation, she offers to dangle the terrified woman from her high-rise window. It might fit if Richards was established as a Snake Plissken-like anti-hero, but we’ve already been treated to his apparent crisis of conscience in that helicopter, not to mention his later self-sacrifice by entering the game to spare the captured Kotto and McIntyre, so Schwarzenegger’s intermittent, shaking asshole just hints at the careless tonal mishmash that is The Running Man.

When Schwarzenegger ends up alongside Kotto, McIntyre and Alonso in the actual game, The Running Man becomes a series of almost identical, indifferently staged scenery. (Also, the internal logic of the game’s geography makes absolutely no sense, with the evil corporation’s vital signal broadcasting facility located right in the middle of the action). The big actor chose to at least present an initial challenge to the muscular star in his figure-hugging, padded jumpsuit. Casting of former wrestlers in Professor Toru Tanaka and Schwarzenegger’s future Predator costar Jesse “The Body” Ventura is dim-witted enough as the predetermined outcome of the weekly competition aims to quench the audience’s thirst for a pure good-over-evil morality play. So is the casting of former football badass Jim Brown as the aging but still formidable Fireball, even though the film shrouds the former NFL star in saggy chain mail and an unwieldy flamethrower backpack. Most curious is the casting of the massive former opera singer and actor Erland van Lidth (fearful prisoner Grossberger in the 1980s Stir like crazy) as the electricity-firing Dynamo, first seen crooning an aria from The Marriage of Figaro much to the delight of Killian’s studio audience.

But there is no consistency in every stalker’s gimmickry. Weightlifter Gus Rethwisch���s Buzzsaw not only wields chainsaws but rides into battle on a motorcycle, while formidable wrestling legend Tanaka is decked out in clunky armor and clad in a hockey player motif. Meanwhile, Dynamo’s lightning powers necessitate that he ride into battle in a vacuumed-up dune van straight from an Italian post-Road warrior copy. That said, as each successive stalker is killed by Richards, there’s resonance in seeing the next celebrity killer in line have to abandon the booze-and-babes dress-up party to don their gear for battle. Ventura’s Captain Freedom, a semi-retired gaming legend now happily entrenched as a training video pitchman and long-haired jock commentator, has the best role of the bunch, though his showdown with Schwarzenegger is dwarfed by the desperate Killian’s body-mapping TV stunts.

Finally, The Running Man proved a modest success, although its $39 million take (on a $27 million budget) was a disappointment given Schwarzenegger’s pulling power at the time. (The 1985s Command returned nearly six times its $9 million budget, for example.) And with Predator after exploding at the box office and in the public consciousness earlier that summer, The Running Man was quickly relegated to status that also ran through Schwarzenegger’s filmography, with the actor publicly running down director Glaser and producer Cohen for removing many of King’s darker elements. What Schwarzenegger got, however, was hardly far removed from the big action spectacles of the 1980s that made him, The Running Man‘s sledgehammer political satire sets it apart, at least in its lopsided way.

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