Running Scared?

ON SCREEN:

The Running Man

Written by Steven deSouza

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser

At the USA Cinema 57

THE YEAR is 2017. Food and fuel are in short supply, and the people are getting restless. The government controls the media and keeps the masses in line with a combination of violence, lies and game shows. Yes, game shows, and specifically "Running Man," the most popular TV program in the nation.

In the Running Man game, Federal criminals, chosen to appear as "contestants," are sent out into the ruins of LA (after the big earthquake) where they are hunted down by "stalkers," glorified killer pro-wrestlers. Which of the several stalkers is to take up the chase is decided by members of the studio audience. There are cameras throughout the game area, and the bloody spectacle of criminals paying their debt to society is watched daily by millions of cheering fans. No contestant has ever survived.

The show has an important function in society, keeping people lined up in front of their TV's, where they can't cause any trouble. As its host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) is the most popular, and in many ways the most powerful, man in the country. The government wouldn't be able to maintain control without him, as long as his ratings stay high. But they've hit a plateau, Killian is getting edgy. To up his ratings he has Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a notorious criminal who had been blamed and framed for a massacre and had just escaped from prison, captured to become his next contestant.

Like previous Schwarzenegger movies, The Running Man is fundamentally an action film, Schwarzenegger and company against a host of well-equipped and deadly enemies. Everyone knows the hero can't die, but director Paul Michael Glaser does a terrific job of making you wonder how Richards will keep escaping. The action is fast and engaging, with the right amount of gore to satisfy the bloodthirsty and make the squeamish turn away, if only for a moment.

Richard Dawson plays the ratings-hungry game show host to near perfection, combining the geniality he used with contestants on "Family Feud" with the perspective of a prima donna power fiend. Schwarzenegger has some trouble when he has to string together several sentences at a time, but once the action gets going, he carries it along and delivers the punchy one-liner like no one else. He is paired with Maria Conchita Alonso, perhaps the only actress around with English enunciation as bad as Schwartzeneggar's. Still, she manages to give her character a toughness that keeps her from being overshadowed by her towering partner.

Running Man works because its action scenes work, but also because it catches its audience in a peculiar bind. The audience of the game show in Running Man represents a bloodthirsty society, a bunch of middle-class husbands and housewives and some little old ladies vehemently cheering on what amounts to a gladiator show. We laugh at this absurdity when members of the audience are given door prizes for choosing the stalkers, but in the very next scene we find ourselves cheering for some of the violence, too. When the studio audience stops cheering for the stalkers and starts cheering for Schwarzenegger, it suddenly becomes clear that the two audiences are one and the same. The audience likes the game show for exactly the reasons we like the movie--it is exciting and violent and satifies our desire for justice.

The action scenes from this film could be part of any good Schwarzenegger movie, but The Running Man has a brain behind its brawn, combining action, witty one-liners and social satire in a very entertaining package.