The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)

by Douglas Buck May 24, 2020 9 minutes (2029 words) HD Streaming

I have to say, I’m finding this quarantine thing kinda working in my favor, at least as far as mental health goes. From the very beginning title cards intro announcing the ‘futuristic’ setting of The Running Man as taking place in the year 2017, I was able to sigh in relief as I realized I was watching this at home, on my projector system, just me and my daughter, surrounded by good speakers, able to take great comfort that seated about me were none of those cackling hyenas that draw so much energy from me, the ones that have begun steadily infiltrating the rep screenings today, there to laugh loudly, to point smugly at the screen at anything that doesn’t match within today’s context.

Ahhhhhh… relief. I mean, don’t get me wrong. The Running Man is a silly movie (with some nice high concept ideas straight from the novel), yet still nowhere near as intellectually bereft as that young group who seem to be taking over the cinemas, determined to spread their intolerance (it scares me to think that these culturally myopic, fear-filled squares are gonna grow up to be our leaders one day… forget the MAGA-hat crews… they’re ineffectual little fascist babies against these self-proclaimed ‘Lefty’ outrage warriors).

Yaphet Kotto with Arnie S.

Over the last few years, as I’ve watched with increasing despair their mindless numbers grow in the cinema seats, their unearned entitlement on full display, I had responded with determination that I wasn’t gonna let them rob from me the theatrical experience that has meant so much in my life – one that has been practically my life’s salvation, the darkened cinema space a literal holy place for me; as unenjoyable as it was becoming, I thought, if I didn’t go, I would be letting them win.

But now?

I know, I know. How dare I not think of the most vulnerable amongst us. Let’s just imagine that I do in fact, think of them … and that then I have another thought… you know, about things like the quiet peaceful joy of watching at home these past months, from a privileged perch of having my work continue at home (unlike, say, 40 million newly unemployed Americans, with the corporate media turning it all, naturally, into identity politic/culture wars, centering it all around MAGA hat wearers, training their CNN/MSNBC gibble audience to be outraged that people would dare go out during this terrible time to protest little things like that they wanna go back to work so as not have their families starve and kicked out on the street from not being able to pay any bills) on my huge screen has made me re-evaluate.

I’m out. Let them have it.

Why these people would want to spend 12-15 dollars of their hard earned money to actively reject something — when, in places like Cinéma Moderne, they could just sit at the bar outside the cinema room and drink and cackle amongst themselves (and perhaps point and laugh at people walking by the window outside if they so desperately need to feel superior) – is anyone’s guess… But have at it. Other than the Cinémathèque Québécoise, where the returning old-timers dot the seats during screenings (thankfully always ready to shush the few clueless newcomers into immediate silence), and a carefully chosen screening here and there, I think I’m gonna keep pretending the quarantine is still in full effect long after it’s over.

So… for me, the good news is… the Great Pandemic 2020 has broken the spell. Quelled resistance and brought acceptance. Thank you, oh possibly man-made (or bat-jumping, or whatever) coronavirus, as your presence, and the world-stopping response, has cured me.

Now I just hope I don’t get it. Who needs those ugly covid-toes, after all?

Back to the 2017-set (snicker, snicker!) The Running Man, based upon a very pulpy yet enjoyable (if my increasingly faulty memory serves that is… I haven’t read it in at least twenty years) Stephen King short scifi novel (one of those published under his non-existent Richard Bachman non de plume, with I guess the almost supernaturally prolific writer giving his overworked readers a break by hiding a few books under a pseudonym), it certainly starts off in the right high-concept direction – namely, a dystopian world that recognizes — oops, I mean, speculatively imagines – the United States as a totalitarian police state, in which the ruthless ruling elites pacify the exploited, poor and controlled populace (gee, maybe that ‘2017’ isn’t so far off after all) with a gladiator-style death-match game show called ‘The Running Man’, hosted by the slimy Damon Killian (with smarmy aging, and not particularly engaging Richard Dawson just coming off his 15 minutes having played the kitschy Smooching Bandit host of the long-running, crazily successful tv game show, “Family Feud”).

The muscle-bound giant Austrian stiff himself, Arnie Schwarzenegger (in the midst of his decades-long duel with the far more diminutive, yet zero body fat and equally ambitious Sly Stallone on who would be the biggest boffo Hollywood action star of all time… I don’t know who won, but face it, Arnie, Sly overall did the far more interesting work… and the Italian Stallion even showed he could act on occasion) plays Ben Richards, a military police helicopter pilot framed by the government and sent to prison for refusing to fire on unarmed protestors during a food riot (a bit unbelievable, with Richards being a vet of the force, this is the first time the absurdly naïve pilot has ever been faced with this kinda fascist behaviour, clearly downplaying the reality that these kinda police states are built on a viciously willing work force… but whatever, for the moment, I was ready to celebrate the resistance), breaks out of the labor camp with the help of the organized ‘resistance’ and ends up caught up participating in the big game itself, determined to survive it and take down Killian (leading to, of course, a variation on Arnie’s ‘I’ll be back’ line from his Terminator role the year before).

And it’s not like the film isn’t kinda fun… well, more a hazy 90 minute distraction than particularly fun (and, as my long-time filmmaking compadré and fellow disgruntled broken idealist Larry Fessenden once said to me, “you could walk out of the theater and get hit by a bus… do you really wanna have spent the last 90 minutes of your life being distracted?”)… but then comes the execution. Veering between pedestrian and inept on the directorial front (from the entirely tv-style Paul Michael Glaser, a once big-time television actor having played one half of the weekly violent cop duo series “Starsky and Hutch”, who was probably as surprised as anyone else that he was inexplicably handed the reigns to a big studio Hollywood summer Ahnold film), with Glaser displaying little idea how to direct an action sequence, or even a simple fight with much excitement or often even coherence, insecurely shooting everything way too close, creating a confused claustrophobic sense when what is required is to feel the grand scale of things.

Maria Conchita Alonzo

80’s Latina it girl María Conchita Alonso isn’t bad as the clueless hottie corporate executive that first betrays Richards, then is taught by him the error of her ways (the better for a girl to fall in love with our uber-mensch, naturally… and boy, does that romance feel tacked on by the end), but the downright stiffness of Arnie’s gleeful (and really dumb) line deliveries are not only bad, but wholly misplaced amongst the attempted grimness of the landscape (you shoulda paid attention to Cameron, Arnie – he knew you were much better if your awkward delivery was explained by the fact that you’re a fucking robot). And, naturally, while there is a criticism of the military state’s power and fascism, that’s just a function of the dystopian scifi genre trappings, because naturally, when push comes to shove, Arnie’s Richards character makes no bones that he isn’t gonna join no lefty resistance… that’s for pansies. In true 80’s tradition, it’s muscle that works for Arnie.

And while I will always love Yaphett Kotto for noted 70’s films like Alien, Blue Collar and that decade’s wonderful blaxploitation fare like Larry Cohen’s Bone… alas, with the 80’s came this funky outgrown hairdo, plastered on top of an increasingly large puffy face. I just can’t take the guy serious anymore. For instance, every time he walked into the room as the supposedly imposing precinct Captain of the Baltimore station in the massively influential television show “Homicide: Life on the Streets”, I couldn’t help but muse how much he reminded me of the Michelin tire guy, just black instead of white.

What an awkward time the 80’s were as far as Hollywood cinema. At this point, the studios were already whole hog into the summer blockbuster assembly-line production (which is still on-going, only now it’s not a summer thing, but an all year big budget devouring up of all the cinema space with popcorn superhero movies, working hard to 24/7 infantilize and distract the masses into missing the fact of how economically fucked over and exploited they’re getting from the very corporate forces giving them the films – gee, you’d almost think it was 2017 all over again)… only they hadn’t quite got the budgets all up to speed and the machine fully working, nor the entire know-how of how to pull all these grand visions off… so there’s a lot of clunky The Running Man type films that just seem just surprisingly uninspired and flat that it seems surprising, from today’s perspective, a studio would have ever allowed to happen.

The outfits of the bad guys who take on our runners are just laughable (not that it would have made the cackling hyenas in the theaters laughing at it any more palatable, mind you)… hell, they even have Jim Brown and Jesse Ventura in the film, just begging to be trotted out for larger-than-life fighting matches against Ahnold… and they barely use them!

While points will always be there for any attempt at a ‘Blade runner’-style dark city setting, in which the elites live in palaces high above the mass squalor (the film’s grim master shots of the city, with smiling unthreatening faces on television screens, surrounded by gritty urban over-population, are clearly directly influenced by Scott’s sublime masterpiece of a vision), nothing in the film visually impresses; there’s no creative vision to make up for the budget short-fall.

I know the usual for this kind of 80’s thing is to celebrate how misguided it is, to celebrate its ‘badness’… naturally, as a way to elevate oneself into a position of looking down at it. Nah (okay, I will admit, having a future 2017 that happens to have the exact same poofy hairstyles as 1987, as well as all those then-common, now absurd to look at, aerobic-style dance numbers, were at the least worthy of some amused commentary between my daughter and I, but that was it!). It’s cinema. It’s an art form. I’d much rather be in awe of some master filmmaker’s vision.

Is The Running Man watchable and occasionally amusing (for all the wrong reasons)? Yeah. Of course. Will I ever tell anyone that they really need to see it? Nah. Give me the sheer excitement and cinematic chutzpah of Arnie’s Terminator 2 any day of the week.

I know Monsieur King, he of many an adaptation of his works, likes to hold up Firestarter and The Shining as the greatest of his cinematic disappointments up to this point, but come on — The Shining? THE SHINING??! You can’t be serious! I mean, if he thinks of George Miller’s brilliant scifi road movie Mad Max as a ‘turkey’, as he wrote in his non-fictional look at the horror genre Danse Macabre, what is The Running Man? Hell, it can’t even be the stuffing that goes into the turkey.

The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   arnold schwarzenegger   science-fiction   stephen king