Blu-ray review: The Running Man (1987)

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The Running Man (1987)
Fabulous Films, certificate 18 (out 24 June)
Originally written for Infinity magazine

Despite earning Arnie Schwarzenegger his first $5m paycheck, The Running Man is a film he still regards as a missed opportunity and a relative failure.

Based upon a pseudonymous novel by Stephen King (optioned before the secret came out, the real identity of book’s author “Richard Bachman” was well known by the movie’s release, although King blocked an on-screen credit), the main drama is set in a dystopian United States where the economy has collapsed, civil rights have been flushed down the toilet and the masses are kept subdued with a mix of reality television and the titular gladitorial contest. The unimaginable future of 2019.

Executive producer Rob Cohen initially wanted Miami Vice star Don Johnson to play the novel’s hero, Ben Richards, but the studio went for action hero Arnie, a choice which also disappointed King. Cohen also approached actor Paul Michael Glaser to direct, but the former Starsky and Hutch hearthrob considered he had insufficient time for pre-production, only changing his mind (unwisely in the opinion of many, particularly Schwarzenegger) when Andrew Davis (The Final Terror) reportedly ran four days behind schedule and $8m over-budget (of an estimated $27m) by the start of his second week behind the camera.

Davis’ replacement by Glaser both unsettled and angered the film’s star, who thought the latter ill-prepared and too fixed on a small screen aesthetic. The Running Man grossed $38m domestically, earning a small but tidy profit, but Arnie remained certain it could have hit $150m with more experienced handling.

That said, it’s a lot of undemanding fun. Richard Dawson (fresh off hosting the popular quiz show Family Feud) sleazes and snarls in equal measure as the contest’s ratings-hungry presenter and puppet master, and there’s solid support from Maria Conchita Alonso (Predator 2), Yaphet Kotto (Alien) and Marvin McIntyre (Short Circuit) as the other ‘runners’. Steven E Souza had worked with Schwarzenegger on Commando two years earlier, so knew how to balance the comic book violence and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, although the movie might have benefited from a larger injection of socio-political satire.

Print-wise, the Blu-ray retains the original grain and texture, whilst Fabulous is to be commended for encoding the DVD version without PAL speed-up.

Extras: Trailer; commentary track by director Paul Michael Glaser and producer Tim Zinnermann; commentary track by executive producer Rob Cohen; two short 2003 documentaries, Lockdown on Main Street (exploring the theme of US civil liberties post-9/11) and Game Theory (an examination of the growth of reality television).

Which People’s Princess?

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In the immediate wake of actress Carrie Fisher’s death, I was intrigued to see numerous references to Leia Organa, her iconic character in the original Star Wars trilogy, as some kind of role model for female empowerment. Really?

Leia is a princess — in other words, a feudal title inherited via her adoptive parents (most likely Alderaan’s monarch).
Leia is a senator — most likely a similar inheritance.
Leia has “the Force” — this time, from her birth father.

None of this strikes me as particularly empowering, and her story isn’t exactly inspirational, either. In the first film, she’s an less-than-successful spy who has to be rescued by a (male) family friend, her brother and a guy she subsequently falls in love with. By the third, she’s deliberately walking into a trap to rescue her new boyfriend and ends up dressed as a giant slug’s sex toy, before being whisked to safety by a tribe of feral teddy hears. Feeling motivated yet?

For me, Leia Organa isn’t a patch on, say, the Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley, who has clearly broken through a chauvinist Plexiglas ceiling to become the bolshie warrant officer on a grubby refinery starship (thankfully, we were spared the planned scene where she and Captain Dallas make explicit the sexual relationship only vaguely hinted at in the final version). Everything that Ripley gets, she’s earned, and not simply handed because she’s got a rich family or her dead mom got knocked up by the chief assassin of a sinister cult. Now that’s an empowering role model.