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As a lover of Arnold Schwarzenegger's particular brand of 80s/90s action I've made it my mission to replace as many of my ageing DVDs with high-definition versions. One title that hasn't yet been released in the UK is 1987's The Running Man, which just so happens to be in my top five Arnie films. unfortunately the US release is region locked, so I looked down under to Australia for a region B copy of the film. (The Australian BD is a direct port of the US release.) The BD recycles a lot of material from the old Special Edition DVD, so portions of this review are lifted from my review of that release.

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 unrest is a common occurrence,  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.

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 government and the media, but if you look around the world we currently live in it's possible to see some disturbing parallels...

Video


I remember being quite impressed with the video quality of the Special Edition DVD release of the film and it would seem that this Blu-ray release reuses the same master. Of course what looked perfectly acceptable in standard-definition won't necessarily stand up to scrutiny when viewed in high-definition. To be fair the film has always looked a little grotty - the soft, gritty photography is symptomatic of eighties action movies - so I wasn't expecting miracles, especially given the lack of a full restoration. The Blu-ray's 1080/24p AVC encoded image is framed at 1.78:1 and resolves only moderate detail, for which the the original source must take partial responsibility. However, when compared directly to the DVD the benefits are clear, especially with regard to things like edge enhancement and general compression. The image also appears to have undergone dirt and scratch removal over and above that applied to the DVD release, as certain film artefacts that were present on the DVD are nowhere to be seen on the Blu-ray. Unfortunately, while Australian distributor Duke Home Entertainment has essentially ported Lionsgate's US release they have chosen to cram everything onto a BD25 with a main movie encode of slightly over 18GB (which is very small even for a film of this length). The resultant low bitrate encode has lost much of its grain, almost certainly as a result of filtering, and frequent bouts of macroblocking are visible throughout (as is some banding). I also noticed a small skip at around the twenty-nine minute mark, but I can't remember if that was also present on the DVD.

The early parts of the film are dull, almost industrial in appearance, which serves to reflect the grim nature of Ben Richards' surroundings. This changes when the action shifts to the Running Man studios, the interiors of which are bathed in a warm orange glow punctuated by bright blue neon (it is here where the blocking is most visible). Elsewhere the colour palette is generally quite natural, although there is perhaps a slight red push to the skin tones. Exteriors are shrouded in darkness, but curiously the image is a shade brighter than the US release and crush isn't really an issue. In all seriousness there is significant room for improvement here, but I just don't think we're likely to see a properly restored release of the film any time soon. It looks a little better in motion than the screen captures suggest, which has been taken into consideration along with the age and quality of the source, but it's a pity that the distributor went cheap and opted for a lower-capacity disc. It further compromised the image quality, which ultimately had to be reflected in the scoring.

Audio


35mm showings of The Running Man we accompanied by a Dolby Stereo audio mix, which was then used to construct a six-channel mix for the 70mm screenings. This Blu-ray presents the film in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, which obviously isn't entirely representative of the original aural experience.

While you're never going to confuse it with a true, modern 7.1 mix, I think most people would be fairly happy with the results here. Dialogue is well-prioritised, remaining clear throughout, while the frontal array delivers strong effects with a surprising amount of separation. However, the real surprise are the surround channels, which are utilised from the off and help to immerse the viewer in the action. Unlike a lot of multi-channel remixes of older films the rears aren't limited to fleshing out the score, but rather they are employed for all manner of ambient effects and exhibit a surprising amount of directionality. While bass isn't anywhere near as potent as you'd expect from a modern mix it's actually pretty robust, especially during the action scenes, musical numbers and when reinforcing the electronic score.

Of course it's not all rosy and the 7.1 mix can sound a little forced, even artificial at times. Fidelity isn't brilliant, with many of the effects sounding hollow or canned, but but obviously the limitations of the source material come into play here, restricting the effectiveness of the track. Still, it's nothing out of the ordinary for a relatively low budget film of this age and the overall experience is more enjoyable than you'd think. I was actually pleasantly surprised with the overall effect of the multi-channel remix.

Extras


The Australian Blu-ray release includes everything from the US disc, which in turn included almost everything found on Artisan's two-disc Special Edition DVD release (only the Stalker biographies are missing).

The Blu-ray includes two audio commentaries, the first with director Paul Michael Glaser and producer Tim Zinnemann, the second with executive producer Rob Cohen. Of the two I prefer the Cohen track, simply because he's a little more accomplished when it comes to audio commentary. The tracks 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.

Other extras include 'Lockdown on Main Street', a twenty five minute featurette that examines the actions of the US government post-9/11. The featurette talks about the powers given to the authorities by the ‘USA Patriot Act’, which greatly increased the ability of the government to spy on the everyday activities of American citizens. 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 bonus feature is the film's theatrical trailer, presented here in standard-definition.

Overall


Although it poses one or two pertinent political questions, The Running Man is essentially escapist entertainment and if treated as such it makes for a very entertaining way to spend a hundred minutes or so. Although not as impressive as some of his big-budget outings, the film affords the 'Austrian Oak' plenty of opportunities to dispense both one-liners and with bad guys, and is at home in the company of movies like Predator and Commando. Unfortunately this Blu-ray is a bit of a mixed bag, with a video transfer that suffers from a number of issues, some of which could have been avoided if the distributor had used a BD50. The audio is surprisingly effective, but again limited by the original elements. Truth be told the film is desperately in need of a proper restoration, but I seriously doubt that's going to be happening any time soon. If you only have access to a region B player this disc is about the best you're going to get for the time being, which is a shame given that it's essentially a hamstrung version of the US release.

There's another option to consider for people who can play region A discs, which is the Olive release of the film. Their release is about the same as Lionsgate's US effort in terms of overall detail, but it reveals slightly more in the shadows by virtue of being a touch brighter. The other major visual difference is that the Olive release hasn't undergone the dirt and scratch removal process, so there are a lot more film artefacts to contend with. Audio-wise Olive's disc ditches the 7.1 track in favour of the original 2.0 Stereo (encoded with DTS-HD Master Audio). This is a more faithful presentation of the original audio, but some might see it as a negative. Personally I like to see original audio on all Blu-rays, as remixes often introduce unwanted elements ( Superman, Jaws, Star Wars etc), but in this case The Running Man's 7.1 mix is actually fairly decent.

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

 Running Man, The
 Running Man, The
 Running Man, The
 Running Man, The
 Running Man, The
 Running Man, The
 Running Man, The
 Running Man, The


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