The more that I look at it, it appears as if Arnold Schwarzenegger's relationship with Carolco in the mid/late '80s was more contractual in nature, a matter of playing out his contract before going on to bigger and better things with major studios. That could explain some of his script choices, like Red Heat, for instance. But he did star in some films that made you think, and The Running Man was one of those.
Based on a Stephen King novel that was adapted for the screen by Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard), The Running Man was directed by Paul Michael Glaser (The Cutting Edge). In it, Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a military pilot who refuses an order to fire on a crowd of unarmed civilian protestors. Someone else does the dirty work for him, and he pays the price for it. He goes to jail, and one aspect of this punishment is a requirement to appear on a game show that includes heavy government participation. The principle of the game is simple: the contestants are sent into an abandoned area of 2019 Los Angeles and have to avoid several "stalkers" who have the task of killing the contestants for the public's entertainment. The stalkers are portrayed by a mix of well-recognized action film cronies and/or Schwarzenegger allies. The hockey stick-wielding killer Subzero is played by pro wrestler Toru Tanaka; the flame-throwing Fireball by football star Jim Brown (The Dirty Dozen); and the retired stalker Captain Freedom is played by Arnold's Predator co-star Jesse Ventura.
Ben's not alone in this task; along with him in this game show are his friends Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto, (Homicide: Life on the Street) and Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre). A last-minute addition to the group is Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso, Predator 2). Amber works on the show and believes the portrait painted about Richards. She thinks he's a cold-blooded killer, so when he escapes and tries to meet an old friend, he runs into her and she turns him in. When she begins to see events in her life that were distorted by the government, she starts to question the show's honesty and intent.
With Amber and Weiss' help, they manage to locate a network satellite that, when hacked into, provides a valuable source of counter-programming to debunk the myths the underground is spreading That and an underground network, headed by Mic, played by Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood, wearing several small aging prosthetics, are designed to counteract this, however they can.
There is little denying what King was trying to say with the book and to a degree, what Glaser tried to illustrate in the film. With the government playing an increasing role in everyone's lives, the level of intrusion is commonplace, and the people's general apathy to speak out against it is frightening. Glaser helps soften this blow by parodying the environment smartly; most of the game show commercials help illustrate the absurdity but help echo the starker, more serious circumstances of 2019 Los Angeles.
Regretfully, this cleverness is hidden in the machinations of a conventional action film in every sense of the word. It is uninspired for an action film, with Arnold as an underdog riling against the larger machine. Even for an Arnold film at his "action hero peak," it was boring despite the angle King's story delivers. It only seems to work with some sci-fi elements put into it, and even then it's done rather shabbily and could be considered more of a cult film than anything. And that's what The Running Man is left to offer, more than two decades after its release, just a cult remembrance. While the basic themes of the film seem to be headed that direction in modern times, shrouding them in this action film is wasting those deep concepts.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Lionsgate presents The Running Man in an AVC encoded 1.85:1 widescreen look that, just "is," I suppose. Most of the film occurs at night or in darkness, and blacks are inconsistent, with crushing in the few scenes that keep them stable. There appears to be DNR in some of the Arnold close-ups with Kotto and Alonso in the game zone, and film grain is abundant through the feature. Whites are a little hot as well. Not having seen the film in a while and not owning the SD copy, I can't say that it's a clear upgrade in picture quality, but it's far from impressive.
The only sound option is a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround option, which wasn't horrible for a more than 20-year-old film with low production values, but I was expecting a little more. With the action the film has, the only sequences that used the subwoofer (aside from an explosion here and there) were those that feature the contestants being sent into the game zone. There were also isolated instances of speaker panning, but they were rare, and directional effects were scarce. Dialogue sounds balanced, though it takes a few minutes to get up to an acceptable sound level. For a canned late '80s soundtrack, don't expect a revelation.
Most everything from the 2004 Special Edition disc has been ported over to the Blu-ray, starting with two commentaries. The first is from Glaser and producer Tim Zinnemann, and Glaser discusses replacing director Andrew Davis two weeks into the production (after initially passing on the film) and the adjustment associated with the change. He also recalled his apprehensions of and thoughts on the material. Zinnemann recalls some of the production logistics and other aspects of the filming, along with working with Arnold (which Glaser chimes in on also). They kick a little wisdom on some of the larger themes in the film, covering how what was then resonates in pop culture and society now. This is a drab, monotone sounding pair, and they don't have a lot of specific recollection about the production itself. The second commentary is with executive producer Rob Cohen. He's much more active in the track, discussing color and style ideas they tried to employ, and he talks about Fleetwood and Zappa's appearances in the film. Eventually he doubles up on a lot of the material that Zinnemann and Glaser discuss, especially in the "reality echoing film" part of things, but this is a better track than the first one.
After the commentaries, there are two other extras that prattle on about society and seem to infer that The Running Man was prophetic in that role. "Lockdown on Main Street" (24:37) addresses the loss of civil liberties in a post-9/11 world and the impact the Patriot Act (and to a lesser extent its 2003 brother) have had on rights in America. The other piece is "Game Theory" (20:15), which examines how reality television has permeated the airwaves, how the network benefits from them, and some producers/contestants of these shows discuss their inner workings. These two supplements were boring as all get out, frankly, with the only non-commentary extra related to the film being the trailer (1:26).
The Running Man is a futuristic thriller with some interesting assertions about Big Brother, but that's on the periphery. At its core, it's just another Schwarzenegger action film in the '80s, with some uninspired action sequences and casting that borders on bizarre. If you're a fan of the film, I suppose you can grab it cheaply, but if you've got the standard definition edition, I'd be hard pressed to justify double-dipping.