My Favourite Films #49: The Running Man

It’s always interesting watching old sci-fi movies and seeing how quickly they imagined we’d balls everything up. George Orwell thought that by 1984 we’d be living under a totalitarian regime, constantly observed. John Carpenter went for 1997 as the year by which New York had become a prison colony. Of course, some of the joy watching them now is knowing they got it wrong.

And unless Donald Trump really cocks things up, The Running Man will join that list of films set in a future time we’ve now lived through. In 1987 they thought we’d really make a hash of things and live in a dystopian hell where the vicious government keeps the populace brainwashed with violence and glamour on telly.

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I know the poster says 2019, but the opening text says 2017

The film is based on a book by Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) and with all due respect to King, is far more entertaining, mainly because it was adapted to be a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger who was at the height of his powers. This takes the bleak and grim novel and revamps it as an ’80s action movie.

Arnie plays, Ben Richards, a police pilot framed for the killing of unarmed civilians, despite the fact he was the one who objected and refused to follow his orders. Locked up on a working prison where they convicts are forced to wear exploding collars that stop them from leaving boundaries. I saw this movie as a kid, and the exploding collars are the thing that stuck with me the most.

 

He engineers an escape with rebellion members Laughlin and Weiss (Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre, respectively). They want to bring down the government and expose the brainwashing, while Richards wants to get the hell out of town and go into hiding. He plans to get his brother to help him but when he gets to his apartment finds that he has been taken for “reeducation” and that a new tenant is living there, musician Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso). Richards uses her to attempt to flee the country, but she blows his cover and he is arrested.

As a result he meets Richard Dawson’s Killian, the smarmy game show host who runs The Running Man, the world’s most popular TV show. Dawson is a fantastic villain, arrogant, scheming and utterly without compassion, all hidden behind a friendly, polished public image. A game show host himself, he captures the faux sincerity and interest, before revealing a stone cold side away from the cameras.

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Also, in a brilliant moment he responds to Arnie’s trademark “I’ll be back” line with a simple “Only in a rerun”.

Killian wants Richards for the show in order to boost stagnant ratings. The show involves criminals having to run through a series of challenges, with the promise of a blissful tropical paradise should they succeed. Stopping them are the colourful, flamboyant and vicious Stalkers, who are a combination of ITV’s Gladiators and the OTT wrestling heels of the ’80s.

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The Stalkers are good value, each with their own gimmick. There’s Jim Brown wielding a flamethrower as Fireball, an electric shooting opera singer named Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude), Sub Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka) who wields an ice hockey stick fitted with blades and chainsaw wielding Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch).

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Each operates in a different section and attack Richards, Weiss and Laughlin. Amber is also thrown in with them as she starts to realize that the government has lied about things and is busted snooping.

Of course, every Stalker fails and Arnie dispatches them in short order. Each time with a quip ready to go- “Here’s your Sub Zero, now plain zero” and, having cut Buzzsaw in half, “he had to split”.

Killian becomes increasingly frustrated, and the crowd after initial horror begin rooting for Richards. Killian wants to send in Captain Freedom, the retired all time champ played by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, but he refuses.

The action is fast and well orchestrated, with a simple, ’80s bloodiness reliant on practical effects which sees Arnie hack, smash and incinerate his pursuers. Arnie can do this in his sleep, but his odd, unique charisma carries him through and it’s an interesting look at how audiences can be bloodthirsty and fickle.

Arnie’s physical appearance is necessary here, his strength is why he’s chosen as a contender and against better armed enemies it’s ingenuity and brute force that hand him the wins. As a character, Richards isn’t the most developed and we’re expected to just accept him as a hero because he refuses to kill innocents, is fleetingly sad about his brother and tries to protect others, but at the same time he’s rather cold blooded, and physically violent towards Amber when they initially meet. Of course, we root for him because he’s Arnie, which is a clear example of star power.

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The ending, where the truth is revealed to the audience suggests things may be about to change. But it’s an ambiguous ending, and while Richards is free and cleared, it seems unlikely that the whole system will come crashing down.

In taking a decent premise but injecting the drama and visuals of wrestling and game shows, the filmmakers take King’s decent idea and transform it into something far more engaging and believable. This seems more like a show people would get sucked into than the idea from the book, where they merely evade capture in the real world.

By upping the cheesiness around the spectacle, they actually make it feel more real. That people will swallow and enjoy blood and mayhem if it’s packaged the right way.

One of Arnie’s best films and hugely entertaining.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Guns by Stephen King

Last month I got sucked into a Twitter spat about US gun laws, after their most recent mass shooting. From a British perspective it just boggles the mind that the same cycle repeats with nothing done about it. I was ten when the Dunblane shooting happened, and I remembered being stunned and scared, but reassured that afterwards stricter gun laws passed. There hasn’t been a similar event since.

In the US, they happen with depressing frequency, and the pattern repeats over and over again. It’s this pattern that forms the first chapter in Stephen King’s essay on guns. With a depressing, cynical view King runs through the routine of what happens in the wake of a mass shooting.

Like King’s fictional work there is no shortage of flair on show and his writing is skilled and engaging. King’s stance on guns is pretty moderate, and governed by common sense. He understands the need for sensible controls on guns but accepts that little will change in the current climate of US politics.

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It’s here King suggests a novel idea that both political wings should be forced to watch the other’s media for a year in order to close the gap a little and encourage a proper conversation.

Throughout King shows wit and passion, writing convincingly and entertainingly he cuts to the heart of the problem and suggests possible solutions but mainly he points out the idiocy of some view points. It is a man who is tired and frustrated by the seemingly endless cycle of tragedies and inaction.

King also discusses an old novel of his that dealt with a related topic and was found in the possession of some shooters. He talks about his decision to pull it and his feelings about it.

It’s a quick read but well worth it and King impressed me with it.

Verdict: Impassioned and sensible, King writes a great essay about gun violence and the reasons why nothing seems to be changed. It’s an entertaining and involving read. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Unfinished Business: A sort of review of The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Of all the resolutions I made for this year, the one I’m struggling with most is trying to read for at least 30 minutes a day, because other stuff gets in the way and sometimes there’s just no time to curl up with a book. This is why I’ve reached February and only written one book review on this blog.

Now, it’s one and a half.

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I’d decided to check out Stephen King’s Dark Tower series because I’d heard some good things and I’ve enjoyed the other King books I’ve read (It, The Shining, Christine, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot), and the introduction where King explains that it was born from a love of Tolkien and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns made me more excited. I like fantasy, and love Leone’s movies.

I started in and was initially intrigued by the titular gunslinger, Roland’s quest across the desert after the Man in Black in a post-apocalyptic world. There were references to past events and I felt sure that King would reveal these in good time, and that the world would build around the protagonist.

The problem is that while some clues were given and a few details were revealed but I just wasn’t engaging with it. Roland’s characterization was too minimalist, I think King was going for “enigmatic” but it just doesn’t work, and he wasn’t a character I warmed to or was even that interested in after a while.

Even with other distractions this book is under 250 pages long, and I should have been able to bash it out rather quickly, but there was very little drive to do so. And the major reason was that I knew this was part one of a series, so there would probably be no satisfying conclusion and I would have no interest in reading the further installments.

So, with just under 100 pages to go I decided to put down the book for good. It just wasn’t for me. I know that there are some hardcore Tower fans out there, and that’s cool, but for me it just didn’t work, and I probably won’t go back to it.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #17: The Shawshank Redemption

Thank the gods for video.

On initial release back in 1994 this movie was critically well received but under performed at the box office, but because of video and television it’s since come to be regarded, deservedly, as a classic.

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Based on a Stephen King novella the movie follows starts of in 1947 with Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover, winding up in Shawshank prison. The film is narrated by fellow convict Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), who’s serving life for murder himself and who develops a friendship with Andy.

Red’s experience and knowledge of the prison helps Andy to acclimatize, and despite mutual respect and affection the two differ in world view, with Red being slightly more cynical than the idealistic and hopeful Andy.

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Andy initially struggles at the prison but due to his business sense he is able to help several of the guards in financial matters, which earns him some protection from a vicious gang who target him. Andy clings to hope and works hard to make the best of prison, working hard to develop the prison library and carving chess pieces for himself, becoming much loved among the convicts, and vital financial help to the prison Warden, Norton (Bob Gunton) and his various dodgy money-making schemes.

Salvation appears in the form of a young prisoner, Tommy (Gil Bellows), who Andy takes under his wing, and who, on learning about Andy’s past discovers that his former cellmate in a previous prison was actually responsible for the killings Andy is serving time for. However, with Andy being so important and fearing discovery the warden takes steps to stop this from happening, killing Tommy.

This appears to break Andy’s spirits and Red begins to fear for him and his mental state. During the night Andy enacts a plan he’s been working for years and escapes the prison, going on to flee the country, stopping along the way to clean out the accounts for the warden’s schemes and submitting information to the authorities which exposes the events of the prison.

Years later Red is paroled and recalling instructions left by Andy, he too heads for Mexico where the friends are reunited.

This movie is hands down brilliant, it’s shot beautifully and the pacing is wonderful, but what really makes it work are the performances and the script.

Morgan Freeman is superb as Red, the wise jailbird who acts as Andy’s guide and the audiences narrator. Freeman brings his usual magnetic, respectable charisma to the role and has bags of easy going charm throughout, although there’s a streak of steely cynicism within the character. He captures perfectly the disillusionment of the character, and the way that Andy’s influence over him starts to relight his hope and optimism.

And then there’s his voice over. Freeman is blessed with a gorgeous, comforting voice which is a joy to listen to and his warmth and delivery add an extra layer to the film, with the narration being wonderfully well written.

Opposite Freeman, Tim Robbins is also on great form, with Andy being a likable, engaging character and his quiet, distracted manner making him stick out in the tough world of the prison. It’s a quiet, understated performance but Robbins is an amiable on screen presence and captures Andy’s quiet dignity and optimism.

The script is beautiful, with an almost lyrical quality at times and a plethora of fantastic, insightful lines and well crafted phrases. Red’s narration is a treat, with real wit and humour laced in with the tragedy and hardships faced by the characters. And the film is filled with stand out moments, including a heartbreaking sequence where long term prisoner Brooks (James Whitmore) struggles to cope with life in the outside world following his parole and Freeman’s sensational work during Red’s parole hearing, where he delivers a passionate and powerful speech about regret and his life.

Passionate and powerful- Red (Freeman) talks to the parole board

Passionate and powerful- Red (Freeman) talks to the parole board

Frank Darabont’s direction is sublime, allowing the movie to unfold at a slow, languid pace which captures the way time must drag for the prisoners and also a flair for powerful, evocative sequences like in the scene where Andy plays music across the PA system, allowing beauty to enter the grim prison environment for once and Andy’s rain drenched escape.

The film’s ending is one of my favourites, with Red making his journey south, reinvigorated by the promise of new freedom and reunion with his friend, and the final reunion is handled beautifully, with the camera moving away, showing the freedom and space the men now have, but also allowing the characters to reunite in private.

I’ve seen this movie a half a dozen times now, and every time it utterly captivates me. It commands all of my attention and always succeeds in moving me. It’s an example of pure, emotive storytelling and thoroughly deserves the high regard it’s held in. A true classic.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


5 by 5: Kids TV, Writers and Funny Things

Okay, five different top fives all inspired by things from Plinky. And yeah, its largely because I’ve got blogger’s block today.

What were your favourite TV shows as a kid?

  1. Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles– apparently “ninja” was something you couldn’t have on TV in Britain in the 80s. I loved these guys, especially Raphael.
  2. Batman– As a kid the camp naffness of Adam West went over my head and I genuinely loved watching this.
  3. The Lone Ranger– They used to repeat this when I was a kid, and as I loved cowboys I totally dug it. Man, I had retro tastes as a kid.
  4. Postman Pat– Made postmen seem decent and hard working, experience has exposed this as false. Great theme tune too
  5. Thomas the Tank Engine– Why I can’t put Ringo as the worst Beatle.

When you need a good laugh, who/what do you turn to?

  1. YouTube videos of people falling over
  2. Friends repeats
  3. My mates
  4. Trawling through my Twitter feed
  5. Stick on some Bill Hicks on my iPod

Who are your all time favourite authors?

  1. Hunter S Thompson
  2. Terry Pratchett
  3. Stephen King
  4. Ernest Hemingway
  5. Jane Austen

What creeps you out?

  1. Clowns
  2. Ventriloquist dummies and dolls
  3. The weeping angels from Doctor Who
  4. Spiders
  5. When I’m walking along and I see an abandoned article of clothing. Especially shoes, I always fear the owner has been grabbed or gobbled up by something.

Name five foods you’d hate to live without.

  1. Pizza
  2. Alpen muesli
  3. Steak
  4. Yogurt
  5. Subway

My usual- Turkey breast and ham

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.