It’s been a while since I’ve done these Friday B and/or cult movie reviews, and I’ve decided to return with two dystopian films set in the year of our Lord 2019, offering visions of THE FUTURE that may or may not have come to pass.
… And then there are those films which receive consummate passes in the mainstream simply because they’re “prescient,” a word that should, at this point, clearly join “honest” in the critics’ jailhouse. Running Man is one such film, far less provocative in its embodiment and critique of fascistic tendencies (and its ability to recognize the fascism latent in capitalism) than Paul Verhoeven’s fellow 1987 action-sci-fi classic Robocop, lacking Verhoeven’s almost psychotically perfect understanding of blockbuster mimicry (without ever tipping his hand), not to mention Verhoeven’s impish, gleeful bloodletting. Compared to Verhoeven’s film, The Running Man delights in showing us the cards early on: this is a broad, unashamed Hollywood action film, and a satire totally ashamed that we won’t realize what kind of social commentary it has on its mind.
At the very least, The Running Man does literalize the video game orientation of so many action movies from this era, shuttling Arnold Schwarzenegger through a series of quasi-abstract levels that vaguely approximate a dystopic city, as he fights various themed bosses (ice, electricity, fire, and the fourth and fifth natural elements, chainsaw and America). The player character this time, and one with about as much personality as your average video game protagonist, is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards, a former police officer arrested and sent to a detention facility when he refuses to comply with orders to open fire from a helicopter on a group of political protestors angry with the food rationing that is a daily feature of their authoritarian world.
In this 2019-set totalitarian dystopia vision of the United States where the only corporate-and-government sanctioned opiate of the masses is a gameshow called “The Running Man” where prisoners are forced to survive a deadly onslaught of professional (and lethal) hunters gunning for them for a period of time. This episode’s subject, of course, is Richards, having been publically framed for the massacre of the protestors and sent to prison for two years before initially breaking out along with two revolutionaries (William, played by Yaphet Kotto, and Harold, played by Marvin J MCintyre) only to be turned in by reporter Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonzo). Once Amber realizes that Richards is, of course, innocent, she is also captured along with William and Harold and forced to compete as well.
For the most part, that’s all she wrote, albeit with a rather large helping of social commentary on top, and seldom to the movie’s betterment. Adapted from a Stephen King short story (albeit one he wrote as his grittier alter-ego Richard Bachman), the screenplay by Steven E. de Sousa bears all the trademarks of King’s none-too-subtle social conscious (albeit at least without his frequently pedantic treatment of religion and nostalgia). But, in truth, the screenplay bears so little resemblance to King’s writerly style or the book’s narrative that it’s better just to write it off as suffering from typical (and typically late-‘80s) action cinema screenwriting ticks.
It doesn’t really amount to anything, content to revel in a succession of set-pieces suffused with an anodyne atmosphere courtesy of Paul Michael Glaser, who is no John McTiernan (and that’s without even bringing James Cameron into the picture). The first encounter, the crew fighting an apparently academically inclined ice hockey player for some reason (‘80s pro-wrestling typology at its most absurdly accumulatory) in a hell-storm of blue studio lighting shot by Glaser (in his only inspired visualization) like a particularly outre slasher film, the only genuinely abstract location on display. Of course, not content to have an actually great scene in the film, the screenplay then deflates the atmosphere with a blandly anemic Arnold quote because there is no God and we can’t have nice things.
Incidentally, Arnold’s general orientation is, here as always, post or pre-actorly, and no one on screen is truly a presence, even the usually reliable Yaphet Kotto. The one exception is Family Feud host Richard Dawson, giving the only truly memorable turn as a malevolent parody of his famously mischievous off (and on) screen presence, a decision that is self-evidently the film’s only truly inspired decision. It may or may not be the case that its hellish vision of 2019 has more or less come to pass with, among other things, the advent of reality television and a newly totalitarian state, but that certainly doesn’t excuse the lazy, at times inept screenplay or the hopelessly dubious cartoon hysterics that are at once too hyperbolic (as in, unrealistic) and too grounded (as in, not abstracted enough to the realm of cartoon poetry) for comfort. Also Mick Fleetwood is here for some reason. I have no inherent reaction to that fact, but I would rather watch The Running Man than listen to Tango in the Night from the same year.