The Running Man (1987)

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*. Here are some relevant dates.
*. The Running Man was a novella that was published in 1982 by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym used by Stephen King. Apparently producer Rob Cohen didn’t know Bachman was King when he bought the rights to the story. I find that hard to believe, given how these things usually play out between agents, but I guess anything’s possible.
*. Richard Dawson was host of the TV game show Family Feud from its debut in 1976 until 1985. For a while he was one of the best-known television personalities in North America, albeit one who creeped a lot of people out. His casting here is the film’s one saving grace, and according to co-producer Ted Zinnemann he was so strong in the initial cut of the film it was felt that he was stealing the movie away from Arnold (“he [Dawson] was so good he sort of overpowered everybody else”). They then made cuts to his part to make sure their star remained their star.
*. A couple of dystopic Italian films had dealt with somewhat similar ideas a few years earlier: Endgame (1983) and Lucio Fulci’s Warriors of the Year 2072 (a.k.a. The New Gladiators) (1984). The connection to Fulci’s movie is the strongest, it being about a gladiatorial game show with convicts as contestants (they choose playing as an alternative to the death penalty), and the hero being a man wrongfully convicted. On the DVD commentary, however, neither Zinnemann nor director Paul Michael Glaser mention it, or earlier precursors like Death Race 2000 and Rollerball. Instead there’s a vague nod to Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the medium is the message, though I’m not sure what McLuhan has to do with all this.
*. On this same point of influence, Zinnemann adds that “we didn’t look at other pictures and try to take from them at all.” He says “the only reference point at the time were the Japanese game shows . . . I don’t think we looked at Blade Runner as in any way connected to this movie, for instance.” Blade Runner?
*. As with earlier and later versions of the neo-gladiator story there’s a conventional conflict between the powers of the corporation (government and big business joined at the hip in an entertainment-industrial complex) and rebel forces. What The Running Man does that’s a bit different is it turns the camera around to mock the bloodthirsty audience, and in particular older motherly and grandmotherly types, screaming for more violence. Other films in this genre don’t go here. Perhaps because it would make people watching the movie feel uncomfortable? I’m not sure.
*. The “Japanese game show” that provided inspiration was Trans-America Ultra Quiz, which began airing in 1977 and ran until 1992. With Battle Royale (2000) there would be a repatriation.
*. 48 Hrs. came out in 1982. Steven de Souza had co-written that film as well as Commando (1985), an earlier Schwarzenegger vehicle. He would go on to write Die Hard and Die Hard 2. He had a reputation for witty one-liners that could be quoted over and over.
*. Here are some examples of that wit in action, taken from The Running Man. After nearly decapitating Subzero with razor wire, Ben (Arnold) says “he was a real pain in the neck.” Standing over the dead body he announces “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero.” After slicing Buzzsaw’s crotch with a chainsaw he tells Amber that “he had to split.” Before torching a fuel-soacked Fireball with a flare he asks him “How about a light?” Then, after burning him to a crisp he says “What a hothead.” After sending Damon Killian’s sled into a Cadre Cola billboard, causing it to explode, he says “That hit the spot.”
*. Yes, in 1987 you could get paid a lot of money for writing stuff like that.
*. In his defence, and it can only be a partial defence because lines like “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero” are really inexcusable, de Souza may have been trying to patch together a script out of pieces that just didn’t fit together. King’s original story had been left far behind and there are various characters here who don’t seem to have any purpose. Amber is the usual superfluous love interest, but why did they even bother with Yaphet Kotto’s part? What does his character contribute to the film?
*. Beverly Hills Cop came out in 1984. The “Axel F” theme for that movie had been written by Harold Faltermeyer and it went on to win a Grammy and become a chart-topping hit. Faltermeyer was less inspired by this material. His techno-pop score is terrible.
*. The Running Man was released late in 1987, which is when I would have first seen it. I went with a bunch of friends, all young men and Arnie fans. We were disappointed. Zinnemann: “I remember it had a huge opening week or two, and then it sort of fell off and why it fell off I can’t remember.” He goes on to say that audiences didn’t get the typical Arnold movie they were expecting because there was too much comedy. I think it just wasn’t very funny, despite looking very silly.
*. The television show American Gladiators debuted in 1989 and ran until 1996. Apparently it was inspired by this film.
*. The late 1980s and early ’90s were the glory years of product placement. That’s why you’re seeing so many ads and logos here.
*. Total Recall was released in 1990. In both movies Arnold is paired with feisty Hispanic hotties (María Conchita Alonso as Amber here, Rachel Ticotin as Melina in Total Recall). I don’t know why. In any event, Paul Verhoeven had a better grip on this sort of material, as he seemed to really enjoy over-the-top, futuristic satires. Though it’s hard to blame Paul Michael Glaser for this film’s shortcomings (as Schwarzenegger, in his memoir Total Recall, did). Glaser was a late replacement as director, brought in to rescue a project that was in trouble. Andrew Davis was his immediate predecssor (there had been several others) but was way over schedule and hence way over budget only a week into shooting.
*. The 2-disc Special Edition DVD came out in 2004. It includes documentaries on the rise of reality TV and something on the threat of the U.S. PATRIOT Act to civil liberties. Interesting stuff, but I don’t think it has much to do with the movie. Meanwhile, the menu animation looks about three decades out of date.
*. “By 2017 the world economy has collapsed.” Closer, closer . . .

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