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In the year 2017 the United States has become a police state, censoring all cultural activity. The government pacifies the populace by broadcasting gladiatorial game shows in which convicted criminals fight for their lives against technically enhanced killers. The most popular show in the world (and history) is ‘The Running Man’, which is hosted by Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a ruthless and beloved man with power beyond most world leaders. Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a former military helicopter pilot convicted of a massacre he actually tried to prevent, is recaptured by authorities after a brief period on the lam, and is cast by Killian based on public record of his physical prowess. To ensure his contestant plays, Killian throws some of Richards’ comrades into the mix and the games begin.

The Running Man
Throughout my short, vastly overlooked and undervalued film criticism career, I’ve covered many films that I’d considered at least partial conceptual rip-offs of The Running Man. These include Gamer (which acknowledges its reference in the form of visual homage), Paul WS Anderson’s Death Race remake (see more below), The Condemned (which also ripped off Battle Royale), and any episode of X-Men the Animated Series featuring the villain Mojo. Unfortunately, I have to admit that this is a mostly unfair criticism, because The Running Man, based on a novel written by one ‘Richard Bachman’ (Stephen King in disguise), wasn’t very original to begin with, and neither were the embellishments made by screenwriters George Linder and Tim Zinnemann. It just happens to be highest profile film to use the trope, which TVtropes.com calls a mix of ‘Deadly Game’ and ‘Reality TV’. There are so many films that utilize the trope I decided to do a little research in search of the original source. Emphasis on the 'little'

It turns out that Stephen King has been accused of ripping-off author Robert Sheckley, whose short story, ‘The Prize of Peril’ (published in 1958), follows a futuristic TV game show where contestants battle to the death for cash and prizes (kind of like that arcade classic called ‘Smash TV’). Sheckley’s story was adapted by French filmmaker Yves Boisset as Le Prix Du Danger in 1983. The dystopian future element separates both stories from the trope’s original root stories, those of Roman Gladiators, who fought before bloodthirsty audiences to the death for the ‘prize’ of freedom. One key difference between ‘Prize of Peril’ and ‘The Running Man’ is the use of prisoners, which has equally defined the films that followed Glaser and King’s lead. Curiously enough, however, Italian splatter maestro Lucio Fulci’s The New Gladiators (aka Warriors of the Year 2072) predates The Running Man movie by three years, and adds the innocent convict angle, along with the ‘there are no winners’ angle. King’s story was apparently written a year before Elisa Briganti’s script, but it’s impossible to know who decided to ‘adapt’ Sheckley’s story first. Of course both films were predated by my personal favourite deadly game show film, Paul Bartel's Deathrace 2000, which shares the dystopian future and satirical slant angles, but not the death row inmate aspects (which was ‘corrected’ upon the release of a semi-remake).

The Running Man
Though it’s clearly the better film, featuring the better budget, Running Man isn’t any more high brow than Fulci’s New Gladiators, and this sleazy and cheesy streak is one of its greatest strengths. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘80s for film on the whole, and usually prefer the movies that ignore the fashion and pop culture of the era, but for some reason the sci-fi/action films work better the more they embrace the more hideous aspects of the decade. The two names that define the best of this subset are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoven. Running Man was directed by Miami Vice alumni Paul Michael Glaser, who probably utilized the look with a less ironic intent than Verhoven would with Robocop and Total Recall, but whether for the right or wrong reasons, the look works to date the film in an endearing manner. The thing that keeps me coming back to The Running Man above all the imitators and predecessors is the sense of humour. The film isn’t as pointedly satirical as Robocop, which was released a few months earlier than Glaser’s film, but has an absurdist streak that pays off with bigger and more enduring laughs than most of the ‘80s films that called themselves comedies.

The Running Man

Video


Lionsgate’s acquired catalogue releases have been spotty at best, and Running Man definitely isn’t one of the studio’s best. Comparatively speaking this transfer matches most of the strengths and weaknesses of Lionsgate’s recent Red Heat Blu-ray, which is a couple steps above their crummy Total Recall disc. I don’t know why so much of Arnold’s older material doesn’t hold up in high definition, but as a fan I’ve come to accept it. This transfer has some advantages over the Artisan DVD release, specifically in colour quality and brightness. The occasionally goofy, sub- Blade Runner neon look of The Running Man certainly lends itself to the format, even if the lack of high contrast lighting and stylized focus don’t. The most obvious problem most folks will have with the transfer is the consistent, chunky grain, which ebbs and flows based on lighting. Dark shots are generally muddy and the blacks, though mostly clear of excess noise, are rarely as purely black as I’d prefer they were, often absorbing the warmer hues. The really over-the-top comic book colour lighting, especially during the somewhat monochromatic scenes, is certainly an improvement on the DVD, but some of the busier shots suffer minor artefacts, and a general lack of sharpness. Detail is a less obvious problem than the grain and occasional noise, but there are very few instances of fine detail that wasn’t available already on the DVD release. The big effects scenes, specifically the cityscapes, are pretty low in detail and dark, and the crowd shots follow a similar suit. Overall I’d say this is transfer is only a little better than an up-converted DVD, so fans with sets smaller than forty-six inches might want to stick with those.

Audio


Based on the special edition DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 remix there was no reason to think that this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track would be less than adequate. Things are definitely very loud. The remixed surround stuff sounds a bit ‘artificial’ or canned, and don’t always match the tone of the centre and stereo stuff that was clearly part of the original mix. The sound designers keep things active, filling the mix with plenty of incidental audience noise during the game show segments, ambient hum in the bowels of the Running Man game field (or whatever you want to call it), and office buzz while Richard Dawson yells at his underlings. Highlights include the sounds of the ‘contestants’ sliding into the Zone, and the theme noises of each Stalker, such as Dynamo’s electricity, Fireball’s flames, and Buzzsaw’s chainsaws and motorcycle. The LFE is more effectively and naturally punchy than lesser 5.1 remixes, though it mostly pertains to big booms and the electronic score, which is mixed a little lower than expected.

The Running Man

Extras


The extras on this disc are the same that were featured on Lionsgate’s special edition DVD, and they start with two commentary tracks. The first track features producer Tim Zinnemann and director Paul Michael Glaser. This track is tonally pretty lethargic, and there’s no end to the behind the scenes bummers. Glaser was not the initial director, and he’s sure to point out the stuff he didn’t do. There isn’t an excess of blank space, but the whole of the track is a bit exhausting. The second track features producer turned bad director Rob Cohen, who despite his run of terrible movies, is usually a solid commentator, if one that takes himself a little too seriously. I’d recommend his track over the first track for storytelling reasons. Curiously nobody really mentions the film’s sense of humour, or at least no one seems to place much importance on it, though Glaser is sure to call the film ahead of its time.

The extras continue with the delightfully humourless ‘Lockdown on Main Street’ (24:40, SD), which delves headfirst into post-9/11 politics, comparing the Bush administrations Patriot Act to the Communist witch hunts, and Hoover’s FBI civilian spying. There’s nothing here to directly compare then modern politics to The Running Man (which isn’t super-Orwellian to begin with), and fortunately the whole thing is a little bit (a little bit) outdated, but it’s still a pretty ballsy thing for Lionsgate to stick on a popular film release. ‘Game Theory’ (20:15, SD) sticks more to the subject of The Running Man, comparing it to modern reality television, or rather the reality television of three to five years ago. The film’s crew is joined by media experts, and reality show producers in interview vignettes, and the history of the format is pretty well explored, including scenes from the movie. Extras are completed by a trailer, and other Lionsgate trailers.

The Running Man

Overall


The Running Man is a pun-filled Schwarzenegger classic, but this Blu-ray release isn’t the best temple to its over-the-top ‘80s glory. Everyone should definitely go out and get a copy of Artisan’s special edition DVD release, but those with smaller sets won’t find much use for this release, which ports all the DVD’s extras, and features a sub-perfect transfer that mostly looks up-converted SD. The DTS-HD 7.1 surround is a pretty big upgrade, but the video really isn’t. Buy at your own discretion, though the price appears to be just about right.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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