My Loyal Seven readers know that Missile Test is a big fan of John Carpenter. In fact, he’s the unofficial official director of both the Empty Balcony and Shitty Movie Sundays. He didn’t direct The Running Man, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle from 1987, but he should have. In style, flavor, pacing, look, feel, music, inherent mistrust of authority, and its very ’80s-ness, I have never seen a film so Carpenteresque without being directed by the man himself. It’s uncanny. But, this month is not about John Carpenter. It’s about His Arnoldness.
The Running Man is an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, and veered wildly away from the source material. That’s not an uncommon thing in movies that are star vehicles. The mere presence of the name at the top of the bill necessitates a film making drastic changes to accommodate a star. But it goes beyond just showcasing a star more or feeding ego. This film version of The Running Man is a much more cynical story in regards to television and American popular culture in general. Its themes of mistrust of authority seem meant more as a warning for viewers of today rather than a portrayal of a dark future. Sure, this fictional future is dark enough, but it’s absurd enough to not be too much of a downer.
It’s the future! By 2017, the world economy has collapsed, and the United States has become a police state. The masses are held in check by ruthless violence and appeals to the lesser angels of their nature. Television has become a cesspool featuring such programs as The Hate Boat, Climbing for Dollars, and the terrifyingly titled Confess. I don’t know exactly what went down in 2017 to turn America into this strange land, but if it spawned a television show whose mere title evokes Stalinist show trials, then that is a scary future indeed. But the atmosphere of The Running Man inflicts no burden of conscience or worry upon the viewer. It’s all absurdist fun, the best way to portray dystopian futures. That helps us to forget that some ideas in stories such as this aren’t all that outlandish.
The economy collapses in 2017? I just read a news story recently about dangers facing the Chinese economy and how economic problems there would be very painful here. Not only that, the last six years have done a hell of a job convincing us of how fragile the economy can be.
A police state asserting itself not long after economic collapse? It can’t happen here, right? Sure, our country’s long track record of freedom is encouraging, until one begins to think too much on the experience of airport security or the NSA. Shit, all of a sudden The Running Man doesn’t seem as much good fun.
Arnold plays Ben Richards, a former tool of the state, er, policeman, who has been sent to prison for not mowing down a bunch of innocent people during a food riot. Richards made the mistake of pissing off the state, and instead of just locking him away forever, they damn him in the eyes of the public, portraying him as a mass murderer. Richards manages to escape from prison, but he and his compatriots are eventually captured and are forced to participate in The Running Man, yet another television game show where the contestants, all prisoners like Richards, are set loose in a destroyed section of Los Angeles and hunted by network assassins.
The show is hosted by one of the smarmiest characters of all time, Killian, played to perfection by Richard Dawson. This was inspired casting. The filmmakers could have gone with any number of people, but going with an actual game show host, and one who had a fair number of lecherous moments in real life, was perfect. Even the way he holds his microphone, be-ringed pinky finger extended, screams slime. Killian is such a bad guy that when the story reaches denouement, it’s easy to forget that Killian is only the public face of the state, and is not behind the evils that plague the people.
Behind all the good fun and grisly deaths in The Running Man is a constant subtext of people versus power. Never, ever, trust the powers that be to tell the truth, and never expect them to give up control willingly. It’s actually an important message, and only gets lost a tiny bit beneath the grander spectacle.
The spectacle itself is quite enjoyable. Director Paul Michael Glaser knew what he was doing, even if the technical execution wasn’t all that great. The Running Man came about during the peak of the action flick. All that smart stuff I wrote about above can’t hold a candle to the stupid, including an unusually high number of continuity errors and plot holes for a film. But that doesn’t matter. The stupid is why people watch movies like this. All that subtext crap is just filler for the scenes when Arnold isn’t kicking ass. This is an action gem.
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed I’m proceeding along Arnold’s filmography in a chronological fashion. But, it seems I have skipped a movie. Never fear. I did not forget about Predator. I wrote about that movie previously, and that can be read here.