The Running Man

January 13, 2011

Dawson and Arnold, together again

There’s some hard, mean fun to be had in The Running Man, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film, in which he plays yet another version of the monosyllabic man. Much of the fun, no doubt, comes directly from the novel by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym for the appallingly prolific Stephen King.

The book and film propose a futuristic game show in which the contestants are criminals who are hunted down and killed by professional stalkers. And it all happens live, in living color, on nationwide television. The most dangerous game indeed.

The show doesn’t merely generate rating points, it also pacifies the population, which suits the shadowy totalitarian government just fine. They supply the criminals, the cartoonish stalkers provide the bloodshed.

Schwarzenegger stumbles into all this when he’s falsely convicted of mass murder. Now known as the “Butcher of Bakersfield,” he’s delivered into the diabolical hands of the creator-host of the “Running Man” show (played by former “Family Feud” host Richard Dawson with all the evil unctuousness he can muster, which is a lot).

So, of course, the better part of the movie is taken up with Arnold’s battles against the stalkers, who have names such as Fireball, Buzzsaw and Dynamo. As expected, this makes for some punchy action sequences set in a war-zone vision of Los Angeles.

Also expected in Schwarzenegger films are the terrible puns that the actor spouts with alarming regularity; after cleaving Buzzsaw in two, he reports that the stalker “had to split.” There’s a bit of love interest, too, with Maria Conchita Alonso coming along for the run. (Arnold’s most charming line to her, before they become friends: “Remember, I could snap your neck like a chicken’s.”)

But the film’s at its best in the realm of nightmare fantasy. We see commercials for shows such as “Climbing for Dollars,” in which contestants must scrap for cash in a room full of bloodthirsty Dobermans. And any time Dawson is holding forth to his rabid studio audience, the movie really falls into its black-humored groove.

Directing is Paul Michael Glaser, who used to be Starsky in “Starsky and Hutch,” and thus knows something about violence and television. Glaser herds all the action effectively, but someday some director is going to have to work up the nerve to tell Arnold: Please, no more puns, no more puns.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

This opened a few months after Predator, and in both reviews I make a cute little oblique reference to the classic short story, The Most Dangerous Game. Well, sue me. I blame the movies for having a limited imaginative spectrum. Also, I think this was about the last time you could use the phrase “in living color” and assume your audience took it as a reference to the Sixties slogan about color television programs rather than the Wayans brothers’ TV series (not that either would register today). All in all, this has to be counted another shrewd outing for Arnold, blending pure action with the hip irony that tries to distance itself from that action. And the casting of Richard Dawson really does make the picture—why don’t people think of stuff like that more often?