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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Warning! There are a few, minor, spoilers in this post, also its a bit of a long post so you may want to make a cuppa first.
A few weeks ago, to coincide with the release of this movie the channel Film Four decided to show three other films that are based around death matches- Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders and The Running Man.
I thought this was a risky strategy, as from what I’d seen in the trailer, The Hunger Games was going to struggle to match them- it seemed to lack the gritty, dark invention of the first two and didn’t look like it could compare with the mindless joy of the Schwarzenegger movie.
I was a little apprehensive because its based on a series of books that apparently have a massive teenage following (this had completely passed me by, further proof that I may be over the hill and out of touch) and this doesn’t always bode well- while I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, I found the films a bit disappointing and as for Twilight, well, I only saw the first one and I spent a lot of that hoping Wesley Snipes was about to burst in and start kicking ass.
But I had heard good things from a few people who’s opinions I trust, and it was the next movie due to start when I arrived at the cinema.
The film is set in the fairly near future, I’d guess about 100 years or so. The US is gone, replaced by Panem, where the ruling elite live in the Capital, and the oppressed masses live in 12 districts. As punishment for an uprising some 74 years before, each year the districts give a young man and woman between the ages of 12 and 18 to take part in The Hunger Games, where the 24 contestants fight it out until one remains.
In district 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers for the competition after her younger sister’s name is drawn. Alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), district 12’s male representative they are taken to the Capital and prepared for the show. This includes weapons and survival skills training and paraded for the cameras.
They need to get the crowd on side so that they have sponsors, who will donate supplies and equipment that will be delivered to them in the arena. They are assisted by a stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) who takes an instant liking to Katniss, and is sympathetic to her situation. Also aiding them is a former tournament victor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) a hard drinking, cynical rogue who initially clashes with Katniss but slowly warms to her.
Katniss begins to gain popularity due to her lack of pretense and backstory, which is increased when Peeta reveals in an interview that he has had a long term crush on her. This angers her, but Haymitch calms her down and tells her this will make her all the more popular.
The games begin and Katniss, Peeta and the other 22 contestants must begin their fight for survival.
I gotta say, all my misgivings about the film turned out to be misplaced, and I did really enjoy the flick.
It did take a while for me to get into it, as I found the character of Katniss a bit cold and stand-offish to begin with, but I soon warmed to her. Lawrence deserves a lot of credit for giving a fantastic performance as a girl thrust unwittingly into the limelight, and I think it’s the character’s awkwadness in these scenes that made me warm to her, but I also liked the tough edge the character had.
There’s a believable grit in Katniss’ quiet determination, and she’s a great heroine, tough, resourceful and clever while also showing compassion and doubt that ring completely true. This is a character who has had a hard time of it, and wants to win, but struggles with the fact that she will have to kill to do so.
The world the film takes place in is realised fairly well, although some of the stylings of the rich Capital seem a tad campy. It almost falls into the trap of splashing around too much make up and hair dye on the aristocrats, but it somehow maintains the right balance. Just.
The Capital seems to be modelled on the French upper classes prior to the revolution, not just in terms of some of the hairstyles and poodles running around the place, but in the decadent way they live, the feasts and fancy clothes being completely seperate from the grim realities in the districts.
Elizabeth Banks plays the official who acts as Katniss and Peeta’s handler, and caked in make up that ages her considerably, and a bizarre hairdo she heightens this effect.
The games itself are, of course, central to the whole film and they’re done very well. As soon as Katniss enters the arena there’s a palpatable tension as she attempts to survive and adapt to the woods. There’s a neat touch in having a loud cannon fire whenever a contestant is bumped off, and the start of the tournament, when a rush for supplies turns into a bloodbath is a grim, tough introduction to the procedings.
One of the problems though is that with 24 contestants, we never get to know that much about most of the characters. We see them all in training, or at the parades and several of them are realistically awkward teenagers who you guess will not survive long in the arena, but far too many are left underdeveloped.
There are four from two of the more developed districts who have been trained for years in anticipation of the games, and give off a kind of “master race” vibe. Clearly these are the villains of the piece, and their leader, Cato (Alexander Ludwig) is set up as a nasty piece of work, although this is done rather shoddily and aside from mocking one of their victim’s stupidity and surprise, he never does anything dastardly enough to be a proper villain.
Indeed, one of the gir’s in the group, Clove (Isabella Fuhrman) is more despicable. She’s shown as being extremely merciless and taunts Katniss during their showdown.
The rest of them are even more ill served. I understand that there’s not enough time to explore them all, but it would’ve been nice to see a bit more of them in action. Especially those who make it to the final handful.
We do get to see more of a young, cute kid called Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, who forms an alliance with Katniss. This resourceful, quick thinking kid brings out Katniss’ compassionate, caring side as she clearly reminds her of the sister she sacrificed herself to protect. This relationship provides some scenes of touching tenderness amongst the running about.
But its a shame we never get to see more of some of the others. In particular two characters I felt might have been interesting/cool to see in action are given very little screen time. There’s a clever, sneaky ginger girl who gets a couple of minor appearances, which give tantalising glimpses of ability and ingenuity but we never see enough to know more about her, which is a shame as she seems fairly reluctant to fight and it would be nice to have this issue explored more.
The other is the boy from Rue’s district, a hulking black guy who displays some affection for his young partner/opponent and looks like he can handle himself, but is only seen briefly after kicking some ass in the opening scrap. Also, like the character of Billy in Predator, he is set up as some kind of badass only to suffer a disappointing, off-screen death.
The character of Peeta is never fully explained, and there are few things that don’t quite gel. He’s shown to be extremely naive and reluctant to kill, yet at the same time he does exhibit some quite clever gamesmanship- forming alliances during the game and playing the crowd well in the build up. His love for Katniss is charming, and I liked the fact that you never fully knew how much affection she felt for him. Is she falling for him as the contest progresses, or is she simply playing the game?
I haven’t read the books, so maybe its explained in more detail there, but personally I quite like the ambiguity.
As I said, the games are done very well, with the tension building and a real sense of danger being created. The opening bloodbath is shot with frantic urgency and there’s a genuine feeling of confusion and chaos, as you try to figure out who’s taking out who.
There is however, one problem, and I feel this is down to the director, Gary Ross, who uses a little too much of the “shaky cam” technique. Once the games start, and in that first fight, its a good tool, capturing the movement and urgency of the games, and getting you right there into the action. The only problem is, he uses it right from the start. When showing the crowds waiting for the names to be drawn, or Katniss going hunting, even when she’s talking to a friend, the camera is never still, it weaves about, like a drunk is in charge of it. Inside my head I was bellowing “BUY A DAMN TRIPOD!”
It just struck me as too nuanced and took me right out of the movie. I found it off putting and a little annoying, but thankfully I got used to it.
But then later on it again became a problem. During the climactic showdown it returned, and while the getting in the action technique can really work (see the Bourne films, or the tough, heavy hitting action in Warrior) it doesn’t in the final fight. Number one, its set during the night and secondly it features two characters who have similar clothing and hair colour, so its a little hard to follow exactly what’s happening.
It really works in the confusion of the first battle, but for the big showdown I couldn’t help feel that it might have been better to shoot it in a more old fashioned way, to really heighten the drama.
But these are minor gripes, and for the most part I was completely absorbed by the action, and totally engaged with rooting for Katniss. As I said, Lawrence gives a great performance.
Most of the cast do very well. Hutcherson, who irritated me a lot in Journey 2 is quite good in this as the awkward, nervous Peeta and I did find myself kind of liking him.
With limited screen time the other contestants provide quite a good mix of the believably tough and the hopelessly doomed.
The supporting cast has a few gems- Donald Sutherland is as dependable ever as the menacing ruler of the Capital, and Lenny Kravitz does well as Katniss’ stylist and friend.
But, the best performance is given by Woody Harrelson as the drunk Haymitch. From his first appearance onwards he oozes roguish charm and his cynical, jaded character hints that even for the victor life isn’t a bed of roses. His relationship with Katniss is quite sweet, their initial tension replaced by growing respect. Harrelson is capable, on the day of making great performances and just as in Zombieland, he threatens to steal the show.
All in all, I really enjoyed the movie. Its not perfect, but there are good performances and the tension is created well. Also, in Katniss there is a great female lead in a sci-fi flick, she goes right up there with Sarah Connor and Ripley in my book, as a credible, strong female character.
I’m a little intrigued to see what happens in the sequel and whether it picks up with Katniss’ story or goes another way.
Verdict: A solid, enjoyable sci-fi action movie. The camerawork is a little too shaky for my liking, but on the whole its very well done. Lawrence may be one to watch, and it gives the sci-fi genre its first great female hero in years. 8/10
Oh, and in regards to the three films I mentioned at the start-
The Hunger Games probably just beats Battle Royale, it might not have the gore and shock factor of the Japanese flick, but its far more engaging on a character level, and isn’t as OTT and “censor-baiting”.
Its probably on a par with Series 7, although it doesn’t have that film’s jet black humour or toughness.
And as for The Running Man? Well, Lawrence is good, but she’s no Arnie. And the older movie is definitely more fun, maybe in the sequel they could add a few post-kill quips?
Any thoughts? You know what to do. TTFN