The Running Man (1987)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), member of the military, was sent to prison because he wouldn’t follow orders to kill a group of women and children protesting for food. But when he broke out of prison, an edited video was released to the public in which Ben was portrayed to have killed the innocent civilians. Out of desperation, he took Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso) hostage to seek refuge in Hawaii. Ben’s escape was unsuccessful, but his story caught the attention of Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a host of the most popular game on television. In order to restore his reputation, Ben must compete in the gladiator-style show and defeat assassins collectively known as The Stalkers (Professor Toru Tanaka, Gus Rethwisch, Erland van Lidth, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura). Based on a short story by Stephen King, “The Running Man” had a fascinating prediction involving the future of American culture reflected by what was shown on television but the execution did not match the story’s ambition. Although Schwarzenegger had the body for the role, I wasn’t convinced he had the talent, acting-wise, to deliver the depth and complexity in his character. If Schwarzenegger was only allowed to stand and look tough, it might have worked out. Unfortunately, he was required to speak such as giving orders to his teammates, expressing anger, balancing incredulousness and frustration. I felt like his one-liners cheapened the material. The “I’ll be back” line was obviously a reference to James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” It was unnecessary. Others were supposed to serve as comic relief, but there were far too many of them. I was completely taken out of the experience of being in their world. What I liked, however, was the way the camera switched between the battle scenes and the audiences’ reactions. The audiences were supposed to reflect us: rich, poor, black, white, young, and old. The point was all groups craved some sort of violence. I interpreted the game show audiences as individuals who supported capital punishment and thereby accepting the innate hypocrisy within the system. I found the audiences’ reactions interesting and disturbing. It was acceptable for The Running Man, people who had to battle their way through obstacles, to die because they supposedly have committed crimes, mostly murder, despite the lack of concrete evidence. Images on television were enough to persuade everyone. However, it was considered a tragedy for a Stalker, also committing murder, to perish. There was an interesting mix of tongue-and-cheek and cynicism in the way the audiences’ loyalty shifted from one end to another when certain lies were exposed. It highlighted the power of television and most people’s inability (or laziness) to think critically. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s third act was frustratingly, maddeningly weak. The film’s message turned into something it was supposed to be fighting against. That is, the answer to violence is more violence. Instead of leaving us with real insight regarding the role of television in our lives, “The Running Man,” directed by Paul Michael Glaser, took the easily digestible path. I felt like what I put into the film was significantly more than what I had gotten back.