Game/reality shows have already entered the realm of the grotesque with people eating cow stomachs on Fear Factor, getting verbally castrated by Simon Cowell and company on American Idol, and tolerating Donald Trump's presence on The Apprentice. Seeing people actually hunted down by killers seems like the next logical step. And we have a movie for a template!
That movie is The Running Man, the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle that resembles a lot of the Governator's best work: He kills people by the dozens, says some funny puns in that fist-thick Austrian accent and tags along with a hot exotic beauty. If that formula works for you, read on.
The material in Running Man is pretty heady compared to Commando and Red Heat. Based on Stephen King's novel, the movie is set in 2017 after the world has gone to hell. The government controls everything with an iron fist, including the television. The most popular game show is The Running Man, produced in conjunction with the Department of Justice, where a gang of colorful, murderous hunters pursues criminals across 400 city blocks.
Despite the show's immense popularity, creator and host Damon Killian (a well-cast Richard Dawson) wants more. The media mogul sees his chance when framed ex-cop/mass murderer Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger, not even trying to disguise his accent) escapes from prison. "I can get 10 points for his biceps alone!" Killian exclaims while seeing escape footage.
Richards is caught and sent into the hellish obstacle course, but not without some company--his fellow escapees (Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre) who are looking to jam the government's satellite feed and thus help an underground movement; and the aforementioned exotic beauty (Maria Conchita Alonso, well before she hosted a talk show on Spanish television and with shoulder pads that deserve special billing).
The movie's fun is its sadistic nature, with Killian pulling all of the strings and Richards pulling back even harder. But director Paul Michael Glaser and screenwriter Steven E. deSouza (Die Hard) unfortunately rehash the "television is manipulative" territory that was covered so much better in Network and later in The Truman Show, at the expense of some much needed character development. The message also doesn't resonate so well among all of the stabbings, shootings, explosions, and people on fire.
There are other problems: deSouza loads up Arnold with so many puns and one-liners ("He was Sub Zero, now he's plain zero!") that you'd think he's rehearsing for amateur night at The Comedy Store and not a stone-faced survivor. And though some of the bizarre casting works (football legend Jim Brown and opera singer Erland van Lidth appear as killers), some of it is just, um, bizarre. Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa as the leaders of the underground forces? They're great musicians, but not the most convincing actors.
For a Sunday afternoon rental, you can do much worse. Aside from its botched intellectual leanings and rushed ending, The Running Man keeps you entertained. We can only hope network execs that are watching don't get any funny ideas.
The Running Man DVD is padded out onto two discs, namely a widescreen and fullscreen version with slightly different special features. Two commentary tracks don't offer much insight (though that executive producer track is a real rarity), and a 20-minute featurette on the reality show craze is hit-and-miss (including comments from former Survivor Sarah Jones, of all people).