Monday, May 16, 2016

Film Appreciation - A Game Nobody Survives

Tune in to Film Appreciation as Cody Hamman drives up the ratings for the 1987 Stephen King/Richard Bachman adaptation The Running Man.

Published in 1982, The Running Man was a novel written by master of literary horror Stephen King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, a 317 page tome that the author knocked out over the course of a week. Set in a dystopian future, the year 2025, the story centered on a scrawny, impoverished man named Ben Richards who applies to appear on the popular game show The Running Man to support his family and obtain the medicine his ill daughter needs. The Running Man is a life or death game, the objective being to avoid the authorities and the professional killers, called Hunters, that are on your tail for as long as possible. Contestants are able to travel anywhere in the world, if they can manage it, just as long as they mail in two videotaped messages every day. If a contestant survives for an entire month, they'll be rewarded with $1 billion. No one has ever survived. Ben Richards is desperate enough to willingly try to be the first survivor.

When a cinematic adaptation was put into development, hulking action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger was cast to play Ben Richards, and the character and story were changed drastically.

The movie was directed by Paul Michael Glaser, who is best known for playing Starsky on Starky and Hutch and got his directorial start with episodes of that 1970s buddy cop show. Glaser wasn't the first choice, in fact when production began Andrew Davis (The Final Terror, Above the Law) was at the helm. After a week and a half of shooting, Davis was removed from the troubled production and replaced with Glaser.

The script was written by Steven E. de Souza, who had previously worked with Schwarzenegger on Commando, and he really just took some of the basic concepts from the Bachman/King book and used it as a foundation for a Schwarzenegger vehicle.

Schwarzenegger's Ben Richards is a member of the militarized police force in the dystopian future of 2017, by which time the world economy has collapsed and the U.S. has become a fascist police state. After Richards refuses to follow a command to open fire on 1500 citizens participating in a food riot in Bakersfield, California, the massacre happens anyway and Richards is sent to prison for the murders, given the nickname the Butcher of Bakersfield.

Prisoners in the place Richards is locked up in are equipped with collars that with blow their heads apart if they cross the sonic boundaries. This only incoveniences Richards for eighteen months before he makes a daring escape with the help of fellow prisoners Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre) and Laughlin (Live and Let Die's Yaphet Kotto).

While Weiss and Laughlin join up with an underground resistance force led by the likes of Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa, Richards just wants to get out of dodge, even if that means taking a woman - Maria Conchita Alonso as Amber Mendez - hostage. His attempt to flee the continent goes wrong, and Richards ends up back in state custody.

And that's when we get to the part that we're watching the movie for. To see Richards compete on the life or death game show Running Man. In this iteration of the concept, the game is played within a game zone, a four hundred square block area in Los Angeles that was decimated by a huge earthquake in 1997. Contestants are convicts and enemies of the state, set loose into the game zone to be hunted down by the "Stalkers", crowd-pleasing killers that each have their own personal gimmick. If a contestant evades the Stalkers and makes it through the game zone in the time allotted, they're pardoned and freed. At least, that's what the public is told.

After seeing a news report that blatantly lies about what went down when Richards was captured, Amber starts investigating his claims that he's innocent, putting herself in danger while Richards is sent into the game zone. Joining him are Weiss and Laughlin, who also managed to get captured.

Although supposedly taking place in 2019, this film could not shake the decade it was being filmed in, and The Running Man is actually a gloriously '80s production. By this I mean both the film as a whole and the show within the film. The neon-soaked game show starts off with a group of dancers wearing outfits that could have come out of no other era, performing a routine choreographed by Paula Abdul. Then the host takes the stage, and the casting of this character, Damon Killian, was a stroke of genius.

As Killian is Richard Dawson, a man who did a good amount of acting and comedic performing in his day, appearing on 167 episodes of Hogan's Heroes and 74 episodes of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. But as time went on, Dawson became even more well known for his presence on game shows, serving as a regular panelist on Match Game and hosting Family Feud for nine years. I have watched Dawson on many episodes of those shows and have always found him to be an incredibly charismatic, amusing person. He brings that game show experience to the role of Killian and he is pitch perfect as this smarmy creep. The Running Man wouldn't be nearly as good as it is without him.


I watched The Running Man frequently as a child, and one aspect that always fascinated me and brought me back for repeat viewings were the Stalkers. They are flesh and blood cartoon characters, with a murderous side that appeals to my love of horror movie slashers. We get to see five of the Stalkers in the film - Charles Kalani, Jr. as Professor Subzero, a Stalker with a hockey gimmick who sports a razor-edged hockey stick and explosive pucks; Gus Rethwisch as Buzzsaw, who carries multiple chainsaws and rides a motorcycle; Erland Van Lidth De Jeude (who unfortunately passed away a couple months before the film was released) as Dynamo, a guy who sings opera while shooting blasts of electricity; Jim Brown as the flamethrower-toting Fireball, who flies around with a jetpack; and Jesse Ventura as retired Stalker Captain Freedom.

No Stalker has ever been killed in the history of The Running Man, but you can rest assured that Schwarzenegger brings an end to that streak. And drops all sorts of groan-inducing one-liners while doing so. He really delivers some ridiculous lines in this one.

Some may look at The Running Man and think it's a shame, what was done to King's story on the way to the screen. There is certainly room in the world for a more faithful adaptation of the novel, because this isn't really it - the investment of purchasing the film rights was barely worth it. Still, I can't fault any of the creative decisions that went into the making of this film, because it resulted in one of the most mindlessly entertaining movies of my childhood. I'm very glad that The Running Man exists exactly the way it is, and there's no way I would trade it in favor of a word-for-word adaptation.

The Running Man isn't exactly a great movie, but it is rather clever, humorous, and a whole lot of fun. Nearly thirty years on from my first viewing, I still enjoy watching it again from time to time.

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