Although I'd never argue that what I get to watch for work is anything less than enjoyable, sometimes I want to see movies just for the sake of some fun. Occasionally this means trudging out to a theater, plunking down a few hard-earned dollars and immersing myself in some imaginary world that is probably ridiculous, but really engaging, at least for a couple of hours. But more often than not, "fun" means digging back through some of my old favorites on DVD ir Blu-ray and finding out what made them so memorable when I seemed so much easier to impress.
Enter The Running Man. I mentioned this film a few weeks ago when I covered the Blu-ray release of Last Action Hero, but as coincidence would have it, both Arnold Schwarzenegger films were somehow released within a matter of weeks. As such, it seemed like a good palate-cleanser after the hubbub of the awards season, not to mention a good old-fashioned slice of stupid escapism before I immerse myself in the independent spirit of South By Southwest in the weeks to come.
The Facts: Released on November 13, 1987, The Running Man was Arnold Schwarzenegger's follow-up to Predator, and follows a wrongly-convicted soldier who is forced to compete in a televised game of death where he and his friends are hunted down for sport. The film cost an estimated $27 million to make, and went on to earn $38 million in receipts, making it a modest hit; meanwhile, The Running Man received mixed reviews, and currently enjoys a 63 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: As campy fun – a big, glib '80s action movie, The Running Man is still pretty entertaining. It comes from the era in which watching a man's head explode was still a big deal in mainstream movies, but Paul Michael Glaser's direction is surprisingly tame in many scenes, cutting away from the death blows. By '87, Schwarzenegger seemed to be finding a real groove as an actor, or at least a personality that inhabited thinly-disguised versions of himself on screen, and he provides what may have been a template for the violent, quip-ready action heroes that have since become cliché.
Otherwise, Richard Dawson is actually shockingly good as Killian, the brainy adversary to Schwarzenegger's brawn. And quite frankly, as a prescient view of the de-evolution of entertainment, it seems slightly ahead of its time, particularly in its awareness of the sort of media-blitz revamp of real events that has since become standard practice for any sort of reporting or coverage of events.
What Doesn't Work: To say the very least this is a consummate '80s movie, so the look of the film is glossy and overmodulated – essentially, as musclebound and simple as Schwarzenegger's public persona. As a result there's no room for subtlety, and while that certainly isn't necessary in an action movie like this one, it also lessens the charm of the characters and story. In comparison to Commando, where the actor was basically straight-faced throughout the film, he's so gloriously self-aware here that it undermines the dramatic weight (such as it is) of the film, and makes everything that happens pretty purely silly.
Technically, it's pretty clear that although this film was moderately expensive, it wasn't as rigorously polished as much of Schwarzenegger's previous work, and as a result the scenes are sometimes rough-hewn or otherwise sort of rudimentary. Meanwhile, you have a cast populated with actors from a variety of ethnicities, including Maria Conchita Alonso as his female counterpart-cum-love interest, and there seems to have been little to no effort made to smooth over line readings or clarify what the actors say. There are several occasions where I literally had no idea what someone was saying, and while it probably wasn't important, it didn't seem like the filmmakers cared enough to clean up or loop the dialogue.
What's The Verdict: The Running Man holds up only as what it is – a big, noisy, superficial '80s action movie. That is neither a good nor a bad thing; I laughed frequently while watching it, and remembered the joyful escapism I felt when I saw it as a kid. But is it a good movie? No. Is it even a good Schwarzenegger movie? Not really. I will say that the new Blu-ray released by Lionsgate looks really, really good – the picture quality is terrific, and the multi-channel sound is amazingly well-separated and clear – but whether that translates to the movie's own quality comes down to whether you maybe already think it's good – or just good for what it is.