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I’m not quite sure when it started, but in recent years I’ve discovered a fondness for the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s fair to say that Arnie appeared in his fair share of cheese-fests in the eighties (putting aside the undeniably wonderful The Terminator and Predator), and while it’s true that The Running Man falls into this category to some extent the film has a number of redeeming features. After previously owning a copy of the incredibly poor region two effort, which had more in common with VHS than the DVD quality I’m used to, I was overjoyed to learn of Artisan’s new two-disc release of the film.

Running Man, The: Special Edition

Feature


The opening crawl explains the premise of the film better than I ever could, so here goes: “By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the state and a sadistic game show called ‘The Running Man’ has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground. When high-tech gladiators are not enough to suppress the people's yearning for freedom, more direct methods become necessary."

With the economy in such dire straits it is not uncommon for unrest to break out, and when one such disturbance occurs in Bakersfield, Los Angeles, commander Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent in aboard his gunship to investigate. When it becomes clear that the riot is being perpetrated by a group of unarmed civilians desperate for food, Richards ignores the order to open fire and is subsequently overpowered and taken into custody by his former crew. The attack goes ahead, resulting in the death of hundreds of innocents, and Richards is framed for the cold-blooded crime. The newly dubbed ‘Butcher of Bakersfield’ is sentenced to years of hard labour in a maximum-security facility, and it is here that he meets Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre), two convicts with connections to the underground.

After a daring escape Richards declines the invitation to join the resistance movement and instead heads to his brother’s apartment, only to discover that he has been sent to a ‘re-education camp’.  The apartment is now inhabited by a young woman named Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso), one of the privileged members of society who has bought into the government propaganda. Mendez turns Richards in, but rather than heading back to the labour camp he finds himself on the receiving end of an offer he can’t refuse. Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), the sleazy host of ‘The Running Man’, offers Richards the chance to appear on his game show to play for the ultimate prize—his life. If he refuses Killian vows to send the recaptured Laughlin and Weiss in his place; and so it is that our reluctant hero agrees to play the game.

Running Man, The: Special Edition
Of course Killian is a no-good, double-crossing snake, and before long all three men find themselves in the killing zone being pursued by the sadistic Stalkers: Subzero (Professor Toru Tanaka), Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), and Fireball (Jim Brown). There’s even backup in the shape of retired Stalker Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura), just in case the game doesn't go according to Killian’s plan. What follows is a hundred minutes of comic book violence in which Schwarzenegger gets to dispense his own unique brand of justice, complete with trademark one-liners. However, if you look beneath the glossy surface you’ll find hidden depths to The Running Man. I’m sure many scoffed at its over the top portrayal of a government and media, but if you look around the world we live in that vision isn’t a million miles away from the truth…

Video


If there was ever a bigger contrast between releases I don’t think I’ve seen it. In stark contradiction to the region two release, Artisan has delivered a wonderful video transfer for this region one special edition. The discs offer the choice of anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and pan and scan (1.33:1) transfers, both of which are exceptionally good considering the origins of the source material. Although a little softer than newer releases, the image is surprisingly free from grain throughout. The print is also remarkably clean for a film of this age, with very little in the way of image defects or digital artefacts to distract the viewer. While not up to the standards of the very best modern presentations, colour rendition is also very good, presenting remarkably lifelike hues, while blacks are inky deep, with shadow detail remaining excellent throughout even the darkest moments of the film.

Running Man, The: Special Edition

Audio


It’s worth noting that there are two region one releases of The Running Man: the American and the Canadian efforts. The biggest difference between these, at least sonically, is the omission of the DTS ES audio track from the Canadian release. However, as there’s little to choose between the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and the DTS ES 6.1 tracks I wouldn’t feel too bad about going for the Canadian disc if you can find it cheaper than the American release.

That said, I chose the DTS track for the purposes of this review, and I was totally blown away by just how great the film sounded seventeen years after its theatrical release. The mix is incredibly active from the word go, with non-stop, over the top discrete effects and some wonderful panning across the soundstage. Bass is suitably deep, and dialogue is well balanced between the other elements, ensuring that the actors remain perfectly clear throughout. There are a couple of negatives though. For one, the mix isn’t as polished as those found on newer films, and the effects are sometimes a little hollow; but what do you expect from a relatively low budget film of this age?

Extras


Artisan has assembled a modest collection of extras for this two-disc release, chief among which are the audio commentaries on disc one. The first of these is a joint effort from director Paul Michael Glaser and Tim Zinnemann, the second a solo endeavour by producer Rob Cohen (director of The Fast and the Furious and xXx). Of the two I prefer the Cohen commentary, simply because I find him a little easier on the ear than Glaser and Zinnemann (most likely because he has done this sort of thing before). The commentaries cover both technical and anecdotal aspects of the production, such as budgetary constraints and the early production problems that led to the firing of the original director and the hiring of Glaser.

Running Man, The: Special Edition
The only other extra on disc one is Lockdown on Main Street, a twenty five minute featurette that examines the actions of the US government in post 9/11 times. The featurette talks about the powers given to the authorities by the new ‘USA Patriot Act’, which greatly increased the ability of the government to spy on the everyday activities of American citizens. This is a very interesting and provocative piece, even to an English ‘outsider’.

Disc two houses the rest of the supplemental features, beginning with the film’s theatrical trailer (complete with commentary from that old eighties favourite, ‘Voiceoverman’). Next up we have The Game Theory, a twenty minute featurette that examines the cultural impact of reality television with the help of director Paul Michael Glaser, the executive producer of Fear Factor and various academics. All in all this is a reasonably interesting piece that demonstrates that current reality TV is possibly closer to The Running Man than we might like to think…

The final feature on disc two is a fun, throwaway little item entitled Meet the Stalkers. These are basically animated biographies for the various Stalkers, complete with cheesy music and voiceovers. Along with all of their vital statistics, you can choose to view Stalker highlights, read interesting comments from the audience, and take a look at the various Stalker costumes. Along with the Stalkers you can also look up info on everyone’s favourite showman, Damon Killian.

Running Man, The: Special Edition

Overall


Although it poses one or two interesting questions about the nature of government and the media, The Running Man is essentially escapist entertainment through and through, and if treated as such it makes for a very entertaining way to spend a hundred minutes or so. Artisan has pulled out all the stops to deliver the best looking and sounding version of the film that could realistically be asked for, and if only they had managed to put together a more comprehensive package of extras this would have been an exceptional release. As it is The Running Man is still a fantastic effort, and one that deserves a place in the collection of every Arnie fan.


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