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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Running Man': A Show of Satire and Savagery

November 13, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

"The Running Man" (citywide)--a high-energy futuristic science-fiction thriller about murderous TV game shows--has a comic-book savagery that sometimes undercuts its own ideas. This is a movie, partly about the brutalizing aspect of mass media, that opens with a massacre and then shows characters eviscerated by chain saws, shot, bombed and burned to cinders. The massacre is off screen--a plot device to turn its policeman hero, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), into an anti-state fugitive--but everything else comes head-on, in the furious rock-tempo style of the modern action movie.

Murder, in the film, is incessant, inevitable--like station breaks. It is 2019 and the United States has become a totalitarian state. The hit TV show is "The Running Man," a sort of sadist's "Beat the Clock" in which social undesirables are sent through a maze of bombed-out Los Angeles, pursued and slaughtered by cartoonish assassins. These "stalkers" are like the villains in TV wrestling, hulking grotesques with names that cue their specialties: Subzero (a bulbous Japanese in ice hockey garb), Buzzsaw (a meshnet-fetish fattie with an electric chain saw), Dynamo (a warbling tenor of super-Pavarotti girth, spangled with electronic sparklers).

Against these overmuscled mercenary gargoyles the movie pits Schwarzenegger's Richards--a framed cop plunged briefly into a revolutionary underworld ruled by Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa, then caught and thrust onto the show by its Machiavellian host and creator, Damon Killian.

Killian is played by former "Family Feud" host Richard Dawson. His voice is more gravelly now, his eyes twinkle with sour malice and he's pulled out the demons beneath his lecherous, mockingly urbane TV demeanor. Dawson makes Killian the epitome of show-biz sybaritism--a great, howling caricature of vanity and duplicity--and he dominates both show and movie, unctuously strutting, preening, smirking and roaring at the TV studio crowd. And the crowd roars back--a freaked congregation of squares, housewives and grandmas shrieking for blood.

The movie is based on the novel by Richard Bachman--a pseudonym for Stephen King. But King wrote from outside and the people who made "The Running Man"--director Paul Michael Glaser and writer Steven E. de Souza--are TV veterans. Unlike "Network's" Paddy Chayefsky, they aren't criticizing from a stance of outraged integrity. Many of their credentials are from TV action shows--Glaser on "Miami Vice" and De Souza on shows like "The Six Million Dollar Man." Like Dawson, they are cutting up something they know well--and perhaps in defense, they keep everything outlandish, overheated.

In the thick of this satiric dreadnought--in settings that suggest a cut-rate "Blade Runner"--is Schwarzenegger, his bulging, ham-sinewed body poured thickly into what looks like a latex roller-derby outfit with super-hero slashes.

"The Running Man" is, by far, Schwarzenegger's best vehicle since "The Terminator"--not such high praise if you recall what came in between--and it suggests that his Frank Frazetta frame shows best in these fantasy-sci-fi settings. Yet, often he seems a wild card in his own movie. Where did an idealistic rebel named Ben Richards get an Austrian accent and a propensity for sub-Bond sadistic wisecracks?

The movie keeps trying to race past its anachronisms, but it is loaded with them. The biggest: Why is a TV show in a totalitarian state so worried about ratings? This future dystopia, with its Captain Freedoms and Cadre Colas, seems to combine the worst excesses of left- and right-wing tyrannies.

There is also a disastrous decision to bring Maria Conchita Alonso, as the tawny, fiery Amber Mendez, into the death game too. This is carrying equal opportunities for women too far. Alonso, whose performance approaches nonstop hysteria, would have been better employed above ground, tracking down all the state secrets while the boys rumbled below.

So--split apart, afflicted with star turns--"The Running Man" (MPAA-rated R for sex, language and violence) is definitely no "RoboCop."

But the movie has a similar irreverence, a high-comic baroque exaggeration, and--under Glaser's hand--an express-train energy. For the right audience, it'll be fun. It's for action movie fans with a taste for something off the beaten track--but not too far. And for people who like to rail and spew against the vulgarity and stupidity of TV--but keep watching it all anyway.

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