Summer of Schwarzenegger - "The Running Man" (1987)

In the 80's, Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) wrote a book in one week. It was about a futuristic, televised competition in which a person was supposed to outrun the police while causing as much carnage as possible, earning mass public scorn and serious infamy. The Running Man dealt with all sorts of heavy themes in a grim, serious manner, and was a bit of a downer. This is especially true the ending, which saw the protagonist fly a plane into the station broadcasting the games, in hopes of ending them once and for all. To me, it was grim, stark science-fiction at its very best, complete with a cool concept that predates The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, and a complex, morally grey protagonist.

But of course, most people don't like that kind of stuff. It just doesn't sell. Sci-fi has to be bright, sleek and cool to succeed on the silver screen, which is the sad truth. So it stands to reason that, when King's story got adapted into a film, the writers kept the concept and the names, then threw the rest out the fucking window. And then, for some reason, decided it would be a good idea to put Arnold in a bright yellow bodysuit. Yep. Ladies. Gentlemen. Welcome to The Running Man.

I'll get something out of the way right now. This isn't a terrible movie, by any stretch of the imagination. Cheesy? Stupid? Mindless? Yeah, pretty much, but what did you expect from the writer behind Commando? High art? Hell, even Arnie himself eve rued the fact that the whole thing was "shot like a television show" and lost its "deeper themes" thanks to firing the original director, according to his 2012 memoir. They took the director who would go on to make Holes and The Fugitive, and replaced him with the guy who played Starsky and who would go on to direct the cinematic masterpiece known as... Kazam. No, yeah, they really screwed the pooch on that one. Go figure.

Anyway. Everything about this movie is different than the book. Even the game show isn't the same, despite keeping some choice elements from the source material. The thing is, I kind of like this interpretation. Here, "The Running Man" is a popular game show, complete with a dapper old white guy host in a suit with a booming voice and overenthusiastic audience members. Basically, The Price Is Right, but with less yodeling and more Road Warrior-esque shenanigans. Here, Arnold plays an ex-military guy who refused to gun down innocent civilians, and was thrown in prison for his efforts. He breaks out, gets captured, and gets thrown on the show, forced to run through a series of themed courses full of murderous psychopaths in outfits so dumb, they'd make Power Rangers villains (and by consequence the 2002 version of the Green Goblin) blush. They even put our hero in a skintight suit because... um, I don't know, they just do.

No, we didn't want to see it either, Arnold.
What follows is very big, flashy action with no substance, a lot of dumb one-liners, a forced love story that starts off in a very uncomfortable way, several plot threads that get introduced for no rhyme or reason... simply put, this movie manages to take a King story and somehow make it more complicated than it already was. And, unfortunately, way more complicated than it needs to be. Not that this is a particularly smart film, mind you, there's just a lot going on that's wholly unnecessary. Social commentary gets buried beneath dumb laughs, originality gets bogged down by a conventional plot, so on, so forth. Again, this isn't a terrible film, and certainly, it's enjoyable. Yet it feels like something's missing. Like it's a regurgitation of a tried-and-true formula without any authenticity. Like white guys trying to quote NWA or Public Enemy without getting the point, or white girls doing Henna because they think it looks cool. It does the same routine of better action films, like (ironically) Commando, but lacks the same impact.

Which sucks, considering there are some parts of this movie I really like. Stephen DeSouza's zingers for Arnold are great, Richard Dawson turns in an excellent performance as the maniacal host, some of the action sequences are really fun to watch, there's a nice atmosphere of satire infused into the whole flick... the list goes on. So, in terms of presentation, this is a pretty entertaining and fun time. Definitely not what the source material was at all, considering you'd need a few stiff shots of whisky to get through that book without feeling miserable, but still a nice flick.

I can't help but wonder what potential was squandered. As we'll see with later movies, Arnold is capable of anchoring grim and gritty movies without pandering fluff and over-the-top zaniness. I guess I would have liked to see King's book get a more literal adaptation, as opposed to one that's similar in name and concept only. Ah well. Guess it'll get a reboot at the rate Hollywood is going, so hey, maybe we'll get to see the bleak source material can get the silver screen justice it deserves. As it stands, we got one pretty decent movie out of the concept, and I'm okay with that.

And with that, the first half of Summer of Schwarzenegger comes a close. I know I promised to get through all of the flicks this year, but a lot of stuff got in the way, so it looks like I'll have to divvy it up and finish it next summer. And trust me, I'll definitely be doing that. There's a phrase for that, isn't there? Temporarily quitting then returning to something? Oh, yeah, right.

I'll be back.


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