The Running Man (1987)
By: Mr Intolerance on December 1, 2008  | 
Artisan (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, English DTS 6.1. English, Spanish Subtitles. 101 minutes
The Movie
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Starring: Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Richard Dawson, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, Mick Fleetwood, Dweezil Zappa
Screenplay: Steven de Souza
Country: USA
External Links
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Here's a timely piece of dystopian fiction from the 80s which is as relevant in what it has to say politically today, as it is an enormously entertaining slice of cheesy, fun eye-candy.

By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the State and a sadistic game show called "The Running Man" has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground. When high-tech gladiators are not enough to suppress the people's yearning for freedom… …more direct methods become necessary.

Despite the glitzy Hollywood veneer of the film itself, and its tongue in cheek delivery with loads of bad Arnie one-liners, the scenario depicted above is not totally incredible. The economy does indeed suck, living in a post-9/11 world has greatly affected national security and personal rights (the Patriot Act, anyone?), awful reality game-shows dominate our airwaves, and the news we receive is pretty tightly controlled by both government and media. Censorship is big business. We're fed our entertainment and information like a pack of mangy mutts, basically – that's the level of contempt authority seems to have for the average Jo/Joe in the street.

Hence our opening scene: Captain Ben Richards is one of the paramilitary police in this nightmarish future, and he's ordered to fire on 1500 unarmed civilians who are attempting to loot food, from his helicopter gunship. He refuses, and is subdued after a brief scuffle with his crew. The year is now 2019 (a popular year for the old post-apocalyptic genre), and Richards, like other dissidents, is a prisoner doing hard labour in a prison camp. Locks and bars? Don't need 'em – the prisoners are restrained by a sonic barrier; if they break it, the collars each of them wear will detonate, and the prisoner's head will explode. Pretty effective deterrent. Richards leads a prison break with his two buddies, Weiss and Laughlin, both of whom work for the resistance, which is lead by Mick (played by drummer Mick Fleetwood, of Fleetwood Mac fame – an unlikely choice for the leader of an armed resistance leader; personally, I'd've chosen Lemmy…). Richards has another slight problem though – after his subduing, his men continued the massacre, and the media put the blame for the unpopular action on Ben, broadcasting doctored footage of the events, and dubbing Ben, "The Butcher of Bakersfield." He's definitely an unpopular man, and he needs to get the hell out of Dodge, because nobody on the street is going to help him, and the government want him recaptured.

Los Angeles is a city of extremes, the line between the haves and the have nots is marked and huge. The privileged live in skyscraper apartment blocks, the poor in abject poverty in shanty towns. This is where the resistance hold up, under a constant 24/7 media brainwashing barrage from enormous outdoor TVs, so that no one can escape the government's messages. The resistance need to find the media's satellite uplink so that they can broadcast the truth, but have no idea where it is. Richards declines the resistance's offer to join them, and decides to find his brother, and then some way out of the city.

Here's where his plan hits a bit of a snag – it seems brother Edward has been taken away by the police for "re-education" and his apartment has now been let to Amber, a jingle-writer for ICS (the biggest of the TV networks). He forces her to help him escape, having first tried to enlist her help through pleading his innocence. She, good citizen that she is, isn't having a bar of his story, believing him to be both a murderer and an escaped felon. She aids his arrest at the airport, and Ben is taken off to ICS and blackmailed into appearing on the station's flagship game-show, "The Running Man".

The premise for the show is simple. The contestant is dumped in the middle of a series of different game zones, and has to survive, armed only with their wits against a group of heavily armed Stalkers, state-sanctioned executioners, each with their own unique and brutal way of killing their victims. The host of the show, Damon Killian, is a right bastard - a sleazy, exploitative liar, whose smooth public persona covers a nasty-minded core of horribleness driven solely by the race for the best ratings he can get. Richards, in his eyes, is the best way to get these ratings. People want to see justice done after all, right? What better way than being run to ground by a vicious killer and slaughtered, while the audience themselves bay for blood.

Amber is disturbed by falsified footage she sees of Richards' arrest – she knows what she is shown is not true, doubts the Network's position on the Bakersfield massacre, and decides rather ill-advisedly to do a bit of snooping at the network. Killian double-crosses Richards and sends not only Ben into the game-zone, but also the recently re-captured Weiss and Laughlin.           

The first Stalker they come across is Sub-Zero, a sort of crazed Japanese ice-hockey enthusiast, complete with razor sharp hockey-stick and exploding pucks. The action set-pieces in this film are pretty wild, and this is no exception.

There being somewhat a bit of a setback in the Network's plans, they alter the game play a little and send in two Stalkers at once, redneck chainsaw-wielding Buzzsaw, and opera singing Xmas tree on crack, Dynamo. Amber, having been caught smuggling the Bakersfield footage (which she has secreted about her person in a rather intimate way) is also thrust into the game as a competitor. Badness ensues, and then Weiss, smart cookie that he is, realises that the Network's satellite's uplink is in the midst of the game-zones. Despite the tremendous risk to his life, he decides to try to decipher the uplink codes for the resistance, which Amber memorises.

The Network is by this point in an uproar, and so Fireball, the last of the Stalkers, is sent in to clean-up. Mind you, by this point, Richards is getting a bit of a fan following of his own, and so the story becomes a little more convoluted, especially for the government. Killian has one more Ace in the hole – ex-Stalker, now Running Man commentator Captain Freedom, as Richards' last stumbling post. Richards, on the other hand, is frying bigger fish by trying to find Mick's secret underground lair, to give him the satellite up-link code.

We'll draw a curtain over the proceedings here, and let you find out how it finishes. It'll make you into a better person.

It's worth mentioning that the original story for The Running Man was written by Richard Bachman (a nom-de-plume of Stephen King), and besides the title and the basic premise of having a guy called Ben Richards being on a TV game show called "The Running Man", the similarities end. In the novella, Richards is a normal guy, not a cop, trying to make money for his wife and ailing daughter in a really shitty post-economic collapse society. The game is markedly different – firstly, you have to apply for it, then if you're selected, you're given a certain amount of hours head start and then just let out into the world to fend for yourself, with everyone against you – the public get given rewards for dobbing you in, and you have to send tapes of yourself in to the network every day to prove you're still alive; it all makes it easier for the Stalkers (who look like normal folks, and not the freakishly over-the-top caricature types we get presented with here) to find you. Also, in the novella, Killian is black, and a totally different kind of character, and the end of the story is completely opposite to what we get in the film. It's a bleaker, grittier, grimier, blacker story and no mistake. Check it out.     
Disc one presents The Running Man in 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen picture, disc two in open matte 4:3 full frame. Both pictures have been re-mastered, and given the amount of loot thrown at this film during its creation, you'd better believe that the picture quality is good.
Your choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or 6.1 DTS remixes – it really depends on how badly you want to damage the structural integrity of your house. This is an action-soundfest, it's all very much loud and clear, and reminds me of how I first experienced this at the movies 21 years ago, practically pinned to my seat by the gunfire, explosions and other really loud noises. Crystal clear. Harold Faltermeyer 's score (almost like John Carpenter's early minimalist work) is also sounding good – his music for the TV game-shows rings true every time, too.
Extra Features
This is quite an interesting package, mainly for the two documentaries. Disc one: two audio commentaries – one with producer Tim Zinneman and director Paul Michael Glaser, the other with executive producer Rob Cohen. There's also a fascinating examination on privacy and US government control and monitoring of the population in a post-9/11 society, called "Lockdown on Main Street" – yeah, okay, it's a little on the conspiracy nutcase end of the spectrum, but it's still pretty scary stuff. Disc two: there's another doco, this one called "Game Theory", which examines reality TV and its rise to prominence – obviously having a great deal of relevance to this film, and really showing it to be more prescient than an Arnie film would usually be. This one has interviews with not only the director of reality TV satire Series 7, but also past competitors from shows such as Survivor, as well as writers and directors of things like The Real World – the links between how the truth is manipulated in these shows and how much reality is actually shown, and how its done in The Running Man aren't all that different, really. Both docos only run for about 20 minutes – but given their rather timely warning about government and media control, should have been longer. The only other feature is one called "Meet the Stalkers", which provides a bit of light-hearted relief after two pretty grim docos – text and pictures detailing each of the bad guys, with their stats from the game. Oh, and it comes in quite a nice looking foil-blocked slipcase. 
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
While at a first glance this might appear to be a very silly film with some appalling one-liners, robotic acting and some occasionally awkward direction, The Running Man has a fair amount of social commentary to offer, even if it's glaringly obvious and especially heavy-handed – that's actually a good thing, because it means the surprisingly libertarian message of this corporate-sponsored blockbuster (the irony wasn't lost on me) can be understood by everyone. The use of stereotypes and corny dialogue works in this film's favour, transmitting a lot of information very quickly – I think by this stage of the Governator's career, there were certain expectations that an audience would have for one of his films, and the studios were only too happy to oblige. But when it gets down to the bottom line, this is a big dumb fun popcorn-muncher, and deserves your attention as much on that level as much as on any other possibly, dare I say it, cerebral one. And believe me, this Special Edition 2 discer is the one to get, too.

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