TIFF Bell Lightbox Presents The Rise of Beefcake Cinema: ‘The Running Man’, or ‘Network’ as brought to you by the makers of American Gladiators

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The Running Man

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser

Written by Steven E. de Souza

USA, 1987

Amid a maelstrom of bullets, a trio of prisoners orchestrate a break out.  William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) take sentry duty, shooting down advancing guards while Harold Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre) tries to disable the security system that prevents them from escape.

Weiss keeps inputting the code, “653-9x” into the computer to no avail. As the guards close in, desperation mounts. He keeps repeating the code over and over. Desperation turns to panic until, miraculously, his dedication pays off. The system is disabled. They flee.

This repetitious formula might’ve worked for Weiss, but it doesn’t work nearly as well for Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man. A film that sacrifices substance for showmanship, The Running Man is a simple premise contrived into a series of acutely different, but wholeheartedly banal renderings ad nauseam.

In 2019, the US, devastated by a global economic meltdown, has become a totalitarian police state. Ben Richards is a military pilot in Los Angeles, but when he refuses an order to kill unarmed civilians, he is forcibly put into custody.

After a brief stint on the lam, he is detained once again, but this time, he is recruited into ‘The Running Man’, a survival-of-the-fittest game show televised in front of the entire country.

The best way to encapsulate The Running Man is to describe it as Network, as brought to you by the makers of American Gladiators. Although it aims to condemn the macabre and desensitized nature of media and its consumers, the film, ironically, betrays this sentiment and becomes the very thing it criticizes.

As the film starts out, it contrives character dynamics and relationships in order to move the plot forward towards action movie tropes. For example, after he escapes, Richards goes to his brother’s house, only to find a woman named Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) living there. Richards is informed that he’d been taken away for “re-education”, but instead of trying to save a person that he trusts enough to sequester with (as any loyal, built-like- Schwarzenegger brother would), Richards decides to run away with Mendez. Why? Well, it’s because he needs an obligatory woman to fall in love with at the end.

With only a cursory effort in providing substantive commentary and strictures, The Running Man forgoes its intentions in order to indulge in its own grisly proposition. While the character and narrative exposition is handled as arbitrary and perfunctory minutiae, the film spends an exorbitant amount of time with the actual ‘game’.

The fight sequences come one after another, but because they don’t really build to any solid conclusion, and because they are persistent, continuous, and largely interchangeable, the result is an episodic exercise that only marginally changes with every new villain. They grow tiresome by the episode, making it feel like they’re redundant – added on action scenes that are meant to entertain, not disgust (which is of course, the film’s original purpose).

With such little significance, and so much mindless action, the film actually feels like a real, unironic game show (à la American Gladiators). Not only does this betray the cautionary tone of its conception, the film’s finale, which consists of preachy moralizing and social commentary (à la Network) comes off as specious and disingenuous.

Before The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale, and before that, there was The Running Man. The godfather of the futuristic free-for-all, the film is an ideological mess and a tenacious bore, with its ephemeral legacy (if it ever had one) overshadowed by the success of its successors.

– Justin Li

For tickets and more information, please visit the TIFF website.

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