Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, here at Enuffa.com!
Today we'll dissect and discuss what is possibly The Mother of Awesomely Shitty Movies (or at least a well-respected Aunt), The Running Man! Based to the loosest possible degree on the novel by Richard Bachman (or Stephen King as he's known to everyone), The Running Man tells the story of a dystopian future where the global economy has collapsed and the country is a police-state. The masses are controlled by a military-industrial complex that keeps them placated with violent television and a steady stream of disinformation. The most popular TV show is called The Running Man, where convicted felons are hunted down by cartoonish gladiator-types called Stalkers. The host/creator of the show is the slimy but immensely charismatic Damon Killian, who has become a beloved cultural icon.
The Running Man (1987)
The protagonist of the film, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is a former SWAT cop who after refusing to kill dozens of food rioters, is framed for their deaths and wrongfully imprisoned. He and two fellow prisoners (members of an underground resistance whose mission is to expose the corrupt establishment and restore democracy) escape, only to end up as Running Man contestants.
What ensues is a fantastically awful amalgam of pro wrestling and numerous side-scrolling video games, as the Runners have to evade a series of Stalkers in order to get to the next stage.
This film is absolute tripe, but holy lord it's entertaining. And here's why....
This movie creates a richly detailed little universe for our characters to inhabit. From the fake TV shows and commercials, to the neat technological advances, to the bit characters, the filmmakers have done a fine job of establishing the environment and making this seem like a real world that could actually exist. To a certain extent it reminds me of the dystopia of Robocop. There are some tangible aspects of this universe that make the story somewhat believable.
|Reminds me a little of Blade Runner. Just a little.|
Pro Wrestling Influence
Basically every one of the Stalkers is a pro wrestling character, and some of them are even played by wrestlers. Professor Toru Tanaka plays Subzero (a hockey-themed character with a hockey stick-shaped scythe), Erland Van Lidth de Jeule (a former wrestler) plays Dynamo (an opera-singing behemoth who shoots bolts of electricity from his hands), and of course Jesse "The Body" Ventura plays Captain Freedom (the all-time Stalker Champion). Weightlifter Gus Rethwisch is Buzzsaw (a biker dude who wields a chainsaw - why not just call him Chainsaw then?). Former NFLer Jim Brown is Fireball (who carries a flamethrower). All the stalkers are larger-than-life tough guy types with different specialties and personalized weapons, and this makes for a whole lotta stupid fun. On that note....
|Looks just like the WWF circa 1987.|
Despite not being a great actor per se, I am absolutely captivated by Jesse Ventura whenever he's on the screen. He just oozes natural charisma and rugged sense of humor. He's also great at over-the-top swearing.
|I dunno what's more awesome, Captain Freedom's hairpiece or his chin dimple.|
Maria Conchita Alonso
As Ben Richard's unlikely love interest Amber, Alonso turns a rather thankless role into a source of plucky likability and effortless comedy.
|This has to be the best-ever use of a Bowflex.|
The Hi-Tech Rocket Luge
Dude, I wanna go on this thing! At the beginning of each Running Man episode, the Runner is strapped into this suped-up rocket sled and shot down a long metal tube to the Game Zone. It looks like an incredible ride.
|I dunno what she's so worried about, this ride is boss.|
When Buzzsaw goes toe to toe with Arnold, ol' T-800 turns the tables on him and splits him in half with his own chainsaw, ballbag-first. One of the greatest stupid death scenes in film history.
|Can your saw cut through deez? Deez what? DEEZ NUTS???|
In almost every movie where Arnold's character is struggling or in pain, he emits these absurd Pee-Wee Herman-esque grunts, and they crack me up every time.
Last but certainly not least, the filmmakers stumbled onto a coup when they cast Family Feud star Richard Dawson as Damon Killian. Dawson could not be more perfect in the role, conveying an oddly charming sleaziness as the beloved host of the show. Given his enormous success as a real-life game show host, it's easy to forget he was an actor first. He's an absolute natural in this film, and everything he says comes across as totally genuine. He steals the show, and more or less saves this film from being total garbage.
|Seriously, Dawson KILLS it in this film.|
Jeezus H. Christ, are one-liners the only type of comedy Arnold understands? Why is almost every one of his films replete with stupid puns that occur every time he offs one of the bad guys? I mean they're all over the place in this movie.
Before throwing a guard off a balcony: "Give ya a lift?"
To the electrically-lit Dynamo: "Hey Christmas tree!"
After cutting Buzzsaw in half: "He had to split."
Before setting Fireball on fire with a road flare: "How about a light?"
Christ, it's almost every line of Arnold's dialogue.
Nothing Like the Book
This movie is based on Stephen King's novel, in that it has the same title, the main character has the same name, and the villain has the same last name. That's about it. King's novel is actually a pretty biting commentary on class inequality, American consumerism and its addiction to TV, and predatory corporate practices stemming from overreaching corporate power. The movie has a little of that, but it's really glossed over in favor of delivering silly cartoonish action and belabored humor. This film is a bastardization in the truest sense of the word. As Stephen King-based movies go, only The Lawnmower Man was further off from the source material. Given how pissed King was at Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining, I can't imagine how he felt about this one.
|I saw the movie first and was shocked at|
how different the book was.
The character of Ben Richards in the novel is nothing like the muscle-bound Schwarzenegger. He's a scrawny everyman who can't find work to support his family and volunteers for the TV show so his wife doesn't have to prostitute herself and his sick daughter can receive the medical care she needs.
The show itself is also presented not as a violent spectator sport, but more like America's Most Wanted. The victim is given travel money and a video camera and has to avoid the authorities for thirty days. He earns money every hour he remains free and alive, and if he lasts the full month he wins one billion dollars. He is also required to videotape himself twice a day and mail the tape back to the studio to prove he's still at large. What follows is a tautly-written game of cat-and-mouse, where Richards spends most of the novel just a step or two ahead of the men sent to kill him, and the climax is all kinds of awesome. I'd love to see a faithful adaptation of the book.
This movie could've been so much more.
-Amber's Travel Pass - When Ben first takes Amber hostage he discovers she has a travel pass and decides he'll use it to fly to Hawaii. Then at the airport the security guard scans it, allowing Ben to go through the checkpoint, but he has to create subterfuge to make it look like Amber can't find hers, and the guard just lets them both through anyway. Couple things: 1) Wouldn't a travel pass with a barcode tell the person scanning it exactly who it belongs to? Isn't it the same kinda thing as the security badges people use to enter an office building? Like isn't that the whole point? So when the guard scanned Amber's pass, shouldn't her name have come up, leaving Ben shit outta luck? 2) If the guard was just gonna let Amber through without a pass, what pray tell is the point of requiring a travel pass in the first place??
-TV Ad Footage - Early in the film we see a TV commercial for The Running Man comprised entirely of footage from later in the movie. Those video production crews certainly are impressive. I've seen sporting events where they're able to assemble a highlight reel minutes after a game ends, but I've never seen them edit one together from events that haven't even occurred yet. Like for example there's a clear shot of Richards being dragged around behind Buzzsaw's motorcycle. Couldn't they have either shot a few bits of generic "past shows" footage, or at least used generic-looking footage from later in the movie that wasn't so obviously cannibalized?
-Studio Audience - I find it odd that the live audience for a show based around a sort of spectator sport essentially gets the same experience as those watching at home. The Game Zone action is all captured by TV cameras and the live audience just watches it all on a screen. Kinda pointless to buy tickets for this show, huh?
-What if... - This is more of a question. Presumably your garden variety Running Man episode only features one Runner, right? So what happens if the first Stalker kills him in like five minutes (given how shocked and upset the audience is when Subzero buys it, I'd imagine Runners rarely ever escape the first Stalker)? Does the show just end there or do they have a buncha standby Runners just in case?
|That razor wire must've really hurt his hands.....|
-Camera Angles - The Running Man is neither the first nor last film to be guilty of this, but it always drives me nuts. As the studio audience watches the live Game Zone action on the screen, they see neatly edited, professionally shot footage from this movie, instead of using coverage shot from high up where the hard-mounted TV cameras are supposed to be. Like in the scene where Richards refuses to kill Dynamo the audience sees the same closeup of Ben's face that we see. Couldn't they have shot a bunch of takes from where the TV cameras would be? Also the lighting on this show is sorely inadequate for a sporting event.
|Interesting how the TV cameras in the future capture 35mm film images.|
-The Captain's Skeptical - Late in the film, Captain Freedom bursts into the production booth to tell Killian he won't go on the show. Killian points out that everything's gone to hell and the audience is betting on Richards rather than on the Stalkers, to which Cap replies, "Bullshit!" Uh, Cap? You've been watching the show this whole time, right? You saw that old broad Agnes say she thought Richards would make the next kill, right? Or were you taking a massive dump during that bit?
-Whitman, Price & Haddad (in that order) - At the beginning of the show Killian references "last season's winners," Whitman, Price and Haddad. They're shown relaxing in their new tropical home. Then late in the film, Amber stumbles onto the charred corpses of Whitman, Price and Haddad, in that exact order. Amazing. Also, why wouldn't the network or whomever have disposed of the bodies, given that they've been lying about these three guys for the past year? Furthermore, does the TV audience see this scene? Was it captured on camera? If so, why wasn't everyone appalled? If not, how did The Resistance get a hold of the footage of their corpses to include in their expose piece?
|Last season's winners.....|
-Bakersfield Massacre Raw Footage - At the end of the movie our heroes in The Resistance hijack the TV satellite and broadcast the original unedited footage from the Bakersfield Massacre, thus exonerating Ben Richards of his supposed crimes. Besides being a polished, neatly edited scene from the beginning of the movie, they also use alternate takes of nearly every shot! It's so bad that Ben's dialogue actually changes. At the beginning of the movie he says, "The hell vit you. I will not fire on helpless people!" Later he says, "I will not fire on helpless human beings!" I mean, why wouldn't you use the exact same takes for both scenes? What is this, Amateur Hour??
So there you have it. The Running Man is overall a terribly stupid action film with multiple elements that somehow manage to elevate it to a terribly stupid-but-entertaining action film, not the least of which is Richard Dawson's pitch-perfect performance as the villainous Damon Killian. Arnold is Arnold, a serviceable action figure with a weird accent that seems totally out of place in every film. But hey, my generation grew up with Arnold movies and they hold a special place in our hearts. That's it for this week. Join me again here at Enuffa.com for more Awesomely Shitty Movies!