Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Five Reasons Why 'The Running Man' is Awesome

We revisit one of the most underrated cinematic violence-fests of the Reagan Years. Anti-consumerist satire, deliciously corny one-liners, exploding heads, Jesse Ventura walking around wearing a suit made out of refrigerator parts … this baby has it all!

By: Jimbo X

When it comes to specific timeframes in cinema, I feel that the 1980s are – by and large – an incredibly overrated era. Yes, there were a lot of great genre pictures – your Evil Deads, your Revenge of the Nerdes, your Robocops, etc. – and truly magnificent world cinema offerings – the last hurrahs of Kurosawa and Bergman, highbrow artistic stuff like Fitzcarraldo and My Dinner with Andre, not to mention outstanding documentaries like the unparalleled Shoah – but taken as a whole, I think the epoch pales in comparison to the 1950s, 1970s and 2000s, which undoubtedly had more interesting and diverse fare. When it comes to sheer nostalgia, it’s hard to beat grandiose Reaganomics opuses like Roger Rabbit and Batman, but if you want something that actually appeals to you beyond reminding of you of your salad days, there really isn’t that much to dig through. The eighties were a great time for enjoyable cinema, but it was a real dead zone when it comes to meaningful cinema – so for every Do The Right Thing, you had about six or seven Brewster’s Millions and Heartbeeps.

Perhaps no Hollywood star embodied the all style and no substance Tao of the 1980s more than one Arnold Schwarzenegger. The son of a legitimate Nazi officer who once declared he admired “dictators” in a bodybuilding documentary from the late 1970s, he took the box office by storm in a string of roles that required little grasp of the English language and a lot of walking around shirtless and bazooka-ing things. Basing his career on such nuanced roles as a sword-wielding prehistoric cave-warrior who doesn’t talk much and an emotionless, futuristic cyborg assassin who says even less, the future governor of California would go on to more intricate performances in the mid-80s, playing a guy in the witness protection program who blows a lot of stuff up and a dude whose daughter is kidnapped so he has no choice but to blow up a lot of stuff. By the late 1980s, he had learned enough English to star in films that required him to pantomime human feeling, and it was at this point in his career – the sweet spot in between Predator and Last Action Hero – that Ah-nold put on perhaps his most entertaining performances.

Now, say what you will about Mr. Schwarzenegger’s skills as a thespian, but there’s no denying that between 1987 and 1991, the dude was on fire, starring in all-time action movie masterpiece after all-time action movie masterpiece. I mean, acting deficiencies aside, even egg-headed, hoity-toity critics like Roger Ebert and Rex Reed acknowledge Predator, Total Recall and Terminator 2 as among the greatest blood-and-bullets action flicks ever filmed. Alas, there is a fourth genre masterpiece hidden in Arnie’s impressive run, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why it isn’t celebrated as one of the decade’s top populist cinema offerings.

Granted, 1987’s The Running Man may not be an intellectual tour de force, or even that impressive a special effects set piece. That said, it’s nonetheless one of the most enjoyable cheeseball action flicks of the decade, giving us what is essentially Smash TV: The Motion Picture.

On the surface, there’s not a whole lot about The Running Man’s plot that is all that fresh or unique. Very loosely based on one of Stephen King’s earlier works, the film is basically a high-tech, 80s-tastic variation on The Most Dangerous Game. The idea is a tried-and-true sci-fi staple (the same core concept serves as the basis for several preexisting genre films, including Punishment ParkThe Tenth Victim and Warriors of the Year 2072, not to mention more recent works like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games), but The Running Man approaches it in such a fun, ephemeral way that you can’t help but overlook its general lack of creativity.

Although the film is certainly no Verhoeven-social commentary classic, it’s nonetheless a bit sharper, more culturally cognizant work than most action films of the epoch, in a way, almost foreshadowing the rise of reality television and, to a certain extent, the post-9/11 surveillance state. But more than anything, it’s just grade-A, New Coke-and-crack-cocaine-flavored, NES-era bullet hole-riddled cheese, virtually impossible to not enjoy with a big, dopey, grin on your face from start to finish. So, what exactly makes The Running Man such an indelibly enjoyable little slice of nostalgia? Well, if you asked me, I’d boil it down to these five essential elements…

Reason No. 1

Richard fuckin' Dawson!

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Dawson’s work on Family Feud and Match Game (where he was consistently the only panelist sober enough to feed contestants decent answers.) Although the idea of a TV game show host portraying the central villain in a blood-and-guts-strewn action movie seems like a recipe for disaster, Dawson absolutely KILLS IT in The Running Man, putting on far and away the best, and most memorable, performance in the movie as TV show host\state propagandist Damon Killian. He’s just such a sublime slimeball, pouring on the synthetic Limey charm when he’s playing it up before the TV-viewing audience and acting all shades of asshole-ish behind the scenes, presumably portraying just a slightly more embellished version of his real-life self. As the master of ceremonies for our three-rings of pre-Savings & Loans Crisis carnage, Dawson is about as good ringleader as you could hope for … which kind of makes you wonder, considering how great he was in this flick, how come this dude never got any calls to star in any more Hollywood productions?

Reason No. 2

Arnold’s quips!

The puns are a highlight in pretty much every Ah-nold movie, but in The Running Man, they are especially delicious. Forget cleverness, forget literary allusions, the dialogue here is just cornball city. After garroting pro wrestler Professor Toru Tanaka with barbed wire in a facsimile of a hockey rink, Ahnold replies "Here is your Sub-Zero .. Now just plain zero!" in his thick, barely intelligible Austrian brogue. After shoving a whirring chainsaw through another man's crotch - effectively splitting him down the middle like a chicken wing - he ripostes "he had to split." Before sending Richard Dawson to his demise via the world's most explodey billboard, our hero drolly verbalizes the following epitaph: "you're cancelled." And of course, who can forget Ah-nold's immortal remarks to Killian when given an offer to become one of the program's new hunters: "You cold-hearted bastard! I'll tell you what I think about it. I live to see you eat that contract! But I hope you leave enough room for my fist because I'm going to ram it into your stomach and BREAK YOUR GODDAMN SPINE!" And if that wasn't enough, there's even a bit of hilarious foreshadowing early on in the movie. When underground resistance leader Mick Fleetwood (yes, the due from Fleetwood Mac) asks Ah-nold to join his guerrilla warriors, how does the future governor respond? "I'm not into politics. I'm into survival." And hey, speaking of gubernatorial contests...

Reason No. 3

Schwarzenegger vs. Ventura in a steel cage death match!

In 1987, who'd thunk that the "climactic" fight to the death between Jesse Ventura and Arnie towards the tail-end of The Running Man would represent a retroactive tussle between two democratically elected U.S. governors? The sheer weirdness of seeing two state leaders beating the dog shit out of each other in a barbed wire-draped UFC cage alone is enough to make this one of the film's most memorable sequences, but the titanic struggle itself is pretty damned fun to watch, too. Witness Ventura in fake-ass Captain America get-up choke and strangle a bloodied Ah-nold, with each men exchanging hellacious blows and emitting virtually every form of grunt the human larynx can muster before Schwarzenegger meets his end via a bull rush into a rusty-spike bedecked cage door. Of course, the entire thing is a virtual reality simulation (uh ... spoiler, I guess?) but the bait and switch doesn't detract from any of the awesomeness. Next to the back alley brawl in They Live and Arnie's battle to the death with roided-up Freddy Mercury at the end of Commando, there isn't a more awesome mano a mano brawl to be found in 1980s cinema. 

Reason No. 4

Dynamo – the most electrifying cinematic rapist of the 1980s!

The eighties really were a great time for silver screen sex criminals. Standing shoulder to shoulder with prom night rapist Biff Tanner and the non-consensual fun house boner in Revenge of the Nerds is arguably the most memorable hunter in the movie, our good pal Dynamo. Whereas the other hunters (among them, Jim Brown running around with a goddamn flamethrower) are definitely physically imposing specimens, this tubby, opera singing prisoner-slayer clad in what appears to be bits and pieces of a Commodore 64 doesn't exactly strike fear into one's heart at first glance. That is, until he hops in his dune buggy and starts zapping motherfuckers with lightning out of his hands. Although spared a slow and painful death by Arnie earlier in the film, Dynamo certainly deserved his demise at the end of the movie, when he threatens to rape Maria Conchita Alonso for referring to him as "dickless." Thankfully, the morbidly obese Electro-wannabe is done in by that old action movie standard, the old flicking-on-the-sprinkler-system-so-the-dude-wearing-exposed-wiring-on-his-sternum-gets-deep-fried-like-a-turducken routine. Oh, and as an aside: the guy who played Dynamo, Erland Van Lidth De Jeude - a legitimate Dutch royal, Olympic-level wrestler, professional bass-baritone and MIT-trained computer scientist (not to mention a damn fine character actor, as evidenced by his performances in The Wanderers and Alone in the Dark) - died just months after wrapping up principal photography for the film, hence the producers' decision to dedicate the movie in his honor. 

Reason No. 5

The old lady’s response!

In a film absolutely stocked with awesome B-level and nontraditional actors, who would have suspected that film's most hilarious moment would belong to Barbara Lux - a senior citizen with just two IMDB credits to her name? Yes, the virtual no-name actress pretty much steals the movie in her role as an elderly woman, who is picked out of the crowd and asked by Dawson who she thinks will make the next kill. Of course, keeping with convention, everybody expects her to pick one of the stalkers. However, she throws everybody for a swerve when she instead nominates Arnie's character, Ben Richards, to be the one to record the next fatality. And when Dawson asks her to pick somebody else, she fires back with one of the greatest comedic bits in any blood-soaked, 1980s violence-fest, doubling down on her endorsement of Ah-nold and confidently proclaiming "that boy's one mean motherfucker." It's such a profane, silly, outlandish and cheesy moment that panders to the lowest common denominator - in a film, that comprehensively, could be described using all of the above adjectives - but somehow, someway, it retains a simplistic, unrefined charm that, in a way, symbolizes everything great about the ostentatious, gloriously un-P.C. 1980s. In a big, loud, dumb movie, it's probably the biggest, loudest and dumbest moment of all - and by golly, if it doesn't make you laugh your ass off every single time, you've lost the part of your soul that makes you a human being worth a damn.

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