The Running Man (1987) probably sounded a little far-fetched at the time, but it may have been on to something. Set in the year 2017, it's the name of a deadly cat-and-mouse game show that literally takes no prisoners. Long story short, criminals are hunted down by 'Stalkers' (think American Gladiators with heavy weaponry). In addition to the millions watching at home, a bloodthirsty studio audience cheers on the participants. Hmmm...sounds more like a futuristic Roman Coliseum than your typical episode of Family Feud.
Here's the sad part: with the mind-numbing glut of 'Reality TV' during these past few years, we're really not that far off track, are we? Take the short-lived 2001 show Manhunt, for example: contestants take part in a version of 'Capture the Flag', while hunters wait in the shadows with paintball guns. Sure, it's not a duel to the death, but we've still got a few years to go.
Anyway, back to the show: the latest contestant for "The Running Man" is Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who isn't your average criminal. Accused of gunning down a crowd of protesters, Ben is sentenced to some heavy prison time. Shortly after, he escapes with a group of friends, but he doesn't make it very far. However, someone has taken notice of his evasive abilities: Damon Killian, none other than the host of "The Running Man". The slippery Killian makes Ben an offer: "Compete in the show, or your friends will compete in your place". In typical bad-guy fashion, his fingers were crossed, so Ben and his friends are all forced to compete. From there, it's a frantic race for their lives, as our heroes face flame-throwers, chainsaws and a fat guy with a really sharp hockey stick.
In the words of Killian..."It's showtime!"
Loosely passed on the novel by Stephen King, The Running Man is chock full of '80s goodness: bad hair, worse clothes, and enough neon to make Las Vegas green with envy. In fact, you'd think the movie would have aged poorly because of these elements, but there's a certain quality that keeps it afloat: like similar '80s staples Robocop and Total Recall, The Running Man has a watchable charm that you just can't put your finger on.
However, there are a few really awful aspects that have always kept The Running Man from being more than it is. In addition to a few inevitable chunks of laughable dialogue, the acting performances are very uneven. In fact, if it wasn't for the devilishly good performance of Richard Dawson (Killian), I would dare say that the best performance is given by (gasp!) Arnold himself. From the cardboard-like supporting characters to the flat performance of Maria Conchita Alonso (who makes Arnold sound like an English major by comparison), this one doesn't get by on acting alone.
With that said, The Running Man is still a lot of fun, offering a nicely-mixed blend of action and social commentary. With Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, it's no secret that it depends more on action and one-liners more than character development and intricate plot details. It's a sharp jab at our television-infected culture, but The Running Man isn't mean-spirited or pessimistic in the least. While by no means a perfect example of satire, there's more than enough style and color to draw your attention away from the occasional bit of embarrassing dialogue.
Artisan Home Entertainment, the studio who has firmly established a love/hate relationship with DVD enthusiasts, has really done a great job with this DVD. This is the third time The Running Man has been issued on DVD (prior editions were offered in 2000 and 2002), but this looks like a pretty definitive version. Featuring an awesome technical presentation and a few nice supplements (as well as a surprisingly low price!), there's a lot to like about this release. Let's get started:
Quality Control Department
Sporting a beautiful new 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, The Running Man looks better than ever. Blacks are solid, overall image detail is good, and the transfer is virtually dirt-free! The only minor complaint: some colors seem a bit too saturated (especially during very dark scenes), but it's not a big problem and shouldn't hinder your enjoyment of this movie. There's also a pan & scan version of the movie on Disc 2, if you're into that sort of thing.
The audio is just one more highlight of this 2-disc Special Edition: for starters, we're given a number of audio options, though they're a bit scattered around. Disc 1 contains separate 5.1 Surround EX and DTS 6.1 EX tracks, while Disc 2 offers a 2.0 Stereo track. For this review, I sampled the 5.1 and DTS mixes on Disc 1, and both were very well-done. Although there were a few instances where the surrounds were slightly overcooked, I found this to be a highly enjoyable audio experience overall. Every channel is fairly active, and the LFE has a nice amount of punch, too.
Menu Design & Packaging:
Another highlight of The Running Man was the overall menu interface. Artisan did a great job on the 3-D menu designs, which faithfully represent a few memorable scenes from the movie (much like their fine efforts for the Terminator Special Deluxe Ultimate Maximum Extreme DVDs). The packaging is nice, too: this 2-disc set is held in a slim-double keepcase with an embossed slipcase and includes an attractive insert booklet.
Although this is a little thinner on extras than you might expect, there's some good stuff to be found on both discs. Disc One contains two separate Audio Commentaries, with the first by Paul Michael Glaser (Director) and Tim Zinnemann (Producer), and the second by Rob Cohen (Executive Producer). While I would have liked to hear from the cast (although Arnold is busy running California), these two commentaries offer some nice insight and technical details. In particular, I enjoyed the first commentary, as it gave a pretty thorough background on this rocky production. Also included on this first disc is Lockdown on Main Street, a politically-charged documentary on the state of our post-9/11 culture, as it pertains to the themes of The Running Man.
Disc Two features another documentary, The Game Theory, which focuses more on the impact of reality TV on our culture. Also included is a rather fun little feature called Meet the Stalkers, which presents the stalkers as a strange version of interactive trading cards. Dynamo, Subzero, Buzzsaw...they're all here! Check out their career highlights, weapons, and much more! This second disc is capped off with the original Trailer, although it's presented in full screen only. Overall, it's a nice mix of supplements that complements the movie well.
The Running Man is a fun movie; a great little diversion from what usually comes down the pipe. In grand fashion, Artisan really delivered the goods on this one, from the excellent technical presentation to the nicely appropriate batch of extras. Hopefully, this will be the final version of The Running Man we'll see on DVD; Artisan has a track record of beating their catalog to death, but this is an excellent release that doesn't hold much room for improvement. With a super-low MSRP of $19.98 (and online prices of less than $14), this is a must-buy for fans of the movie, and a decent choice for any fan of social satire and good old-fashioned '80s camp. Recommended.
Other Links of Interest
Reality TV Planet
Join Arnold! - Californians for Schwarzenegger
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.