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THE RUNNING MAN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Richard Dawson
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Audio: Dolby Digital EX 5.1, DTS-ES 6.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: Artisan
Features: See Review
Length: 101 Minutes
Release Date: March 16, 2004

"Killian, I'LL BE BACK."

"Only in a rerun."

Film ***

I remember watching The Running Man, or rather “sneaking in” a viewing, back in the days when I was forbidden to watch any R rated movies. When I saw it, I took it for just another action packed romp starring Mr. Universe. I was even aware that it was based upon a novel written by Stephen King, who actually wrote the book under the alias Richard Bachman. That struck me somewhat strange because it didn’t seem like the kind of story Stephen King was used to writing. But now, watching it for the first time in a long time, I think I have a pretty good idea of what it was trying to illustrate.

Today’s television market is pretty much fueled by that of reality TV. Each of the four big networks seems to have its own top show that turns the viewer into something of a voyeur. The Running Man, which is set in the year 2019, seems to think that citizens, if pushed to such limits in as a result of living in a totalitarian society, will thrive on such realistic shows. I certainly hope that it never comes to that point, and that a show like “The Running Man” is never ever conceived.

The show, which is of course the highest rated show in this futuristic society, consists of taking convicted felons, placing them in darkened wasteland-like settings, and engage in a fight to the death with such barbaric characters as Sub-Zero, Fireball, Captain Freedom, Dynamo, and of course everyone’s favorite, Buzzsaw, who are referred to on the show as The Stalkers. The object of the game is for selected convicts to battle the impossible in the hopes of getting their freedom back. The latest contestant to face such a deadly challenge is Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The only catch here is that Richards, a former Police unit helicopter pilot, is innocent of his charges.

It’s clear that in this particular society, fabricated news is very much frequented by the networks. Richards, in the opening of the film, is given orders to fire upon a crowd of innocent civilians who are fighting over food. His disobeys his orders, refusing to commit murder, and he is then knocked unconscious and jailed on false charges. Once he’s sent to a penal colony, Richards soon escapes, but is soon captured by the police once again, only this time he’s summoned to a one on one meeting with Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) the producer and host of “The Running Man”.

With no other options, Richards is eventually sent into hell, uhh, make that game show hell. He, along with two other acquaintances, pre-selected by the network, must engage in some ferocious battles with an assortment of comic book-like adversaries who acquire such weapons as a blowtorch, chainsaw, and even that of electricity. Adding even more heat to the mix is the last minute addition of female contestant Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso), who initially had Richards arrested during his escape attempt, but later discovered he had been framed, something the network execs will not tolerate.

While I’ve indicated the elements that may make you think while watching it, let’s not forget that this is an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle from the late 80s. This means you expect certain events to happen, such as Ah-nuld combating villains under extreme circumstances, and every so often having the pleasure of a hard to resist one-liner from the current Governor of “Kulli-fornia”. An example of this is a scene where Arnie fights one of the menacing Stalkers on the show. He dismantles the opponent, who has a gas tank attached to his back and is at this point leaking. Ah-nuld tosses a stick of dynamite in the opponent’s direction, asking him “How about a light?”. An explosion then occurs, followed by our hero exclaiming, “What a hothead.”

It’s quite interesting to observe the diverse level of talent involved in The Running Man. You have the biggest action star of the time period in the lead role (Schwarzenegger). There’s also a real life game show host playing, as Dr. Evil would put it, an EVIL-game show host (Richard Dawson, late of “Family Feud”). The story is based on the work of a terror-iffic novelist (Stephen King). And lastly, the director happens to be none other than David Starsky himself (Paul Michael Glaser). Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the resistance group that helps Arnold fight back in the end. It’s a group led by Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa, just as anyone would expect.

It seems like the oddest collaboration of the past century, but they managed to make an action piece that is both campy and a bit thought provoking, especially in these times. The Running Man is a classic Schwarzenegger romp, armed and loaded with a deadly arsenal of hardcore action and even deadlier one-liners from everyone’s favorite Terminator turned Governor of “Kulli-fornia”.

Video ***1/2

The good people at Artisan sure know how to take a flick from the 80s, and master it to the point of looking better than ever. That is completely the case with The Running Man, which is getting the proper Special Edition makeover. It was one of Artisan’s first releases on DVD, and though I never saw that particular copy, I understand the video was not given the anamorphic touch. The picture quality is quite outstanding, given the film’s age of 17 years. The detail is evident throughout the presentation, mind a slight instance or two of image softness. The 2-disc set includes the anamorphic widescreen version on Disc 1, and the full screen version on Disc 2. In other words, you may wanna stick to Disc 1.

Audio ****

As Arnold says late in the movie, “Well, that hit the spot!”

I could not, for the life of me, believe my ears once I popped this disc in. The incredibly superior sound quality was one I was not expecting. Artisan has delivered a 5.1 track mix with an extra dose of boom to it in the form of EX. The surround sound range is simply as explosive as any of the 20 plus explosions in the movie. Words simply cannot describe it. What I can tell you is that Dolby Digital EX can deliver just as enormous on an 80s release like this the same way it has on such recent releases as We Were Soldiers and Blade II. Everything from music to action to dialogue to background noise has been perfected in the utmost sharpest way imaginable. Without a doubt, one of the bigger surprises of the year.

Features ****

The 2-disc Special Edition offering from Artisan includes some extras you may be a bit surprised by. The only downside is that the features are spread across both discs.

On Disc 1, there are two commentary tracks; one with director Paul Michael Glaser and producer Tim Zinnerman; the second with executive producer Rob Cohen. Also featured is much thought-provoking documentary titled “Lockdown on Main Street”. This mind-blowing piece goes beyond the movie to illustrate the current state of criminal and privacy issues following 9/11.

Disc 2 contains a second documentary titled “Game Theory”, which takes a look at the effect reality TV has had on our present society. In addition, there is a database of the movie’s deadly arsenal of villains, titled simply “Meet the Stalkers”. Lastly, there is a trailer for the movie.

Summary:

The Running Man has been given a second life on DVD, both in a glorious Special Edition package, and also becoming that of a movie that is not too far from being possibly relevant to the times in terms of reality TV and privacy issues. Apart from that, it remains an over the top blast of a movie from the late 80s.