The Running Man: Special Edition
In the halcyon days of 1987, before producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray repackaged the premise of PBS's "An American Family" as the younger, sexier "The Real World," thus setting off the reality television craze that's saved the networks millions in production costs, a film like The Running Man was, given its pulp pedigree (it's based on a Stephen King short story written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), viewed less as a satirically prophetic vision of entertainment in a potentially dystopian near-future than as yet another variation on The Most Dangerous Game paradigm, in which men are hunted down for sport. However, in the wake of "Survivor," "The Amazing Race," and "Big Brother," what was once merely glitzy, over-produced trash anchored by that most improbable of movie stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger, now begs to be taken seriously as serious science-fiction. And in this two-disc Special Edition DVD, the begging is sometimes deathly serious, going so far as to invoke 9/11 and the subsequent passage of the Patriot Act, which some contend is a dangerous erosion of Americans' civil liberties. Uh-huh. This is the movie where Jim Brown sports a hideous wig with skunk-like white stripes whilst running around with a flame thrower, right? Indeed, it is. Set in 2017 after a worldwide economic collapse brought on by widespread famine and an energy crisis, The Running Man foresees an Orwellian police state being instituted to maintain order with an iron fist. When Officer Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is ordered to fire upon a crowd of unarmed demonstrators in the interest of suppressing dissent, his conscience intercedes and he revolts, which lands him in a maximum security prison performing hard labor. Even worse, the massacre he tried to prevent ends up being carried out in his name, replete with manipulated videotape, earning Richards the moniker "The Butcher of Bakersfield." Refusing to remain unjustly incarcerated, Richards and two other convicts organize a daring escape from the penal colony, but his freedom is short-lived Richards is promptly tracked down while trying to flee the country. But rather than get sent back to prison (or worse), Richards and his cronies are selected to be contestants on the world's most popular television show, "The Running Man," where he will be forced to earn his freedom by eluding the game's colorful and ruthlessly proficient "Stalkers," whose job it is to kill the hapless runners. Because Richards is so reviled by the public, he's viewed by the show's sleazily charismatic host, Killian (Richard Dawson), as the perfect contestant to provide a much-needed ratings-boost. While this may indeed be the case, what Killian isn't expecting in the bargain is that the physically imposing Richards is also uniquely suited to win the rigged game; ergo, the host must watch helplessly as his dream contestant kills off one Stalker after another while capturing the imagination of the audience.
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As was the case on Total Recall, the script for The Running Man, credited to Steven E. deSouza (though he was far from the only writer to work on it), has been calibrated to fit Schwarzenegger's cheesy, wisecracking image, and it's this overt silliness that effectively dashes any aspirations for thoughtful satire or probing science-fiction. However, under the clean, workmanlike direction of television veteran Paul Michael Glaser, the film moves along at a brisk pace. In fact, when compared to some of Schwarzenegger's other '80s vehicles, The Running Man actually has aged pretty damn well. Perhaps realizing the limitations imposed on him by the script, Glaser revels in the film's cartoon sadism, recalling the gleeful cruelty of such amoral classics as Death Race 2000 and Escape 2000. Adding to the chintz is a vintage score from '80s synthesizer king Harold Faltermeyer, which glazes the picture in a welcome nostalgia for those who lived through that triumphant era. But it's Richard Dawson who really makes this flick cook, fiendishly parodying his smiling, kissing-bandit persona honed on "Family Feud." Though the premise is still hopelessly far-fetched, Dawson's charismatic Killian makes it somewhat easier to buy an entire population's acceptance of slickly produced public execution. As for the Stalkers, they're still high-camp in their garish outfits, led by Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial pal Jesse Ventura as "Captain Freedom." The disc's preposterous suggestions to the contrary, the only trend really presaged by The Running Man is the short-lived "American Gladiators," which pitted athletic contestants against muscle-bound foes with names no less ridiculous than "Sub-Zero" or "Dynamo" (happily, only cash prizes were at stake on that show.) Otherwise, The Running Man should be taken as nothing more than mindless entertainment, a level on which it succeeds pretty sensationally.
Artisan Home Entertainment presents The Running Man in excellent anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-screen transfers with superb Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES 6.1 audio. As good as the presentation is, however, the extras are a mixed bag. The best offerings can be found on Disc One, which boasts two feature-length commentaries. The first, and most enjoyable, is from Glaser and producer Tim Zinnemann, who recount their experiences on this troubled production from Glaser's last-minute replacement of Andy Davis through to the end of the rigorous shoot. Executive producer Rob Cohen also gets a commentary, and his take, while different, is equally entertaining provided one can stomach his occasional self-importance. Rounding out Disc One is the documentary "Lockdown on Main Street" (24 min.), which is essentially an anti-Patriot Act PSA. Even if one is inclined to agree with the sentiments expressed in this featurette, it's still woefully out-of-place when considered alongside a work of such unabashed stupidity. More appropriate is the documentary found on Disc Two, "Game Theory," which examines the reality television craze through interviews with producers and former contestants on these shows. Also on Disc Two is a massively lame "Meet the Stalkers" feature that attempts to offer amusing profiles on the film's villains. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.