Lionsgate // 1987 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 19th, 2004
"Are you ready for pain? Are you ready for suffering? If the answer is 'yes,' then you're ready for Captain Freedom's Workout!"
After two previous DVD versions that left much to be desired, Lions Gate has blessed us with a two-disc Special Edition of The Running Man, which features some of the most bodacious audio tracks this side of a nuclear silo testing facility and a remastered transfer that will make your eyes jump out of their sockets to buy you a drink for treating them so nicely. Add some "controversial" featurettes to the mix, and do you have a winner? Tune in next week to find out!
Or just keep reading.
It is the year 2019, and America has become a decidedly unfriendly place. After the collapse of the world economy, and the depletion of the world's natural resources, America exists in a permanent police state with the public divided into paramilitary zones, controlled with force by the government to prevent food riots and upheaval. The government rules over the populous with an iron fist.
Television has become a pivotal force in keeping the public at bay and complacent with their lot in life. The television network ICS exists as a branch of the government and satiates the masses with ultra-violent and exploitative programming in order to quell their lust for anarchy and rebellion.
In particular, one game show has proven to be the most popular: "The Running Man," which features prisoners, criminals and convicts running for their lives through an apocalyptic urban sprawl, constantly followed by video cameras as they try to escape the "stalkers," professional killers who mercilessly hunt down and exterminate their prey for the sake of quality home entertainment.
Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) used to be a police officer for the state, but he has since been "demoted." After Richards refused to open fire on hundreds of innocent civilians partaking in a food riot, the state relieved him of his command, killed the rioters, and locked Richards away in a maximum-security labor camp for the murders. However, Richards, with the help of some anarchistic associates, manages to escape the prison. They try to recruit him into joining their cause to overthrow the network, but he refuses to get involved, merely wanting to get out of the city, never to return.
Unfortunately, the producers of "The Running Man" have seen the television footage of his daring prison break and have set their eye on Richards. In particular, the host, Killian, feels that he would be the perfect contestant on the deadly popular show. And what the network wants, the government delivers.
The stalkers haven't had much of a challenge as of late...but they have never met the likes of Ben Richards, who just might have a chance at surviving the deadly game and turning the tables back on the totalitarian government that wrongfully imprisoned him!
If, after watching this movie in a public movie theatre back in 1987, someone had stood up and announced that in the future, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse "The Body" Ventura would become the governors of California and Minnesota (respectively), I assure you that 85% of the people present would have crapped their pants on the spot. I know this, because it is the year 2004 and I still need to wear a diaper when I ponder the matter.
Any Stephen King fan will tell you that The Running Man has very little to do with the original short story (penned under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman) other than the sheer coincidence that both story and book happen to spell their name the same way. In essence, the film features Arnold bashing his way, comic book style, through a large variety of super villain-inspired characters, complete with cheesy gimmicks like chainsaws, flamethrowers, and hockey skates, with names like Buzzsaw, Fireball, Subzero, and of course, Dynamo...the absolutely stupidest villain Arnold has ever faced off against, ever. Ever.
As if that wasn't enough, The Running Man also features one of the most oddball action lineups ever to have been green lighted by a major studio (and is even directed by none other than Paul Michael Glazer AKA Starsky of Starsky and Hutch fame). For example: Jesse "The Body" Ventura as a retired stalker, forced to pop pills and do locker room commentary? Professor Toru Tanaka on ice skates, in a goalie outfit, with a razor-bladed hockey stick, pushing his opponents into trap nets, and shooting exploding hockey pucks? Legendary football running back Jim Brown, armed with a jetpack and flamethrower? Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa leading a rebellion aimed at overthrowing the government? How can you not like this movie?
While less deadly to your brain cells than standard Arnold fare, The Running Man is hardly a big thinker of a film, despite its dystopic and politically charged subject matter, which come through far too watered down and amusing to be taken at face value. What The Running Man does offer is great action, fairly decent special effects, one of the most bizarre casts ever conceived, a hoard of comic book villains to beat up and dismember, and some of the best Arnold one-liners ever captured on celluloid; or at the very least, some of the corniest. After besting each of the stalkers, he always has something clever to say about them that, coincidentally, happens to relate to a recently administered gruesome death. Arnold is the master of the action hero double entendre, and The Running Man has some doozies.
The movie is just plain fun...and in the canon of action-packed science fiction films, rather unappreciated. Luckily, this is exactly the right DVD to make you appreciate the living heck out of The Running Man, because Lions Gate (previously an Artisan release) pulled out all the stops for this Special Edition. And while it seems rather superfluous to spread this DVD out into two discs, the second disc accommodates the full screen transfer. Say what you want about full screen, but at the very least, it is nice to have the option for people who like it that way. Luckily, the price does not seem to reflect the addition of a second disc...for a special edition, this is an awfully affordable DVD.
The amount of detail present in the widescreen anamorphic transfer is boggling. The wonders worked with the source material is worthy of technical note, because the previous quality of The Running Man on DVD was nowhere near this clean, crisp, or detailed. For a film from the mid-'80s, this is an astonishing transfer: virtually defect free, solid black levels, and a level of detail and resolution that makes you crawl up an inch from the screen in awe and amazement. There are no unkind words to be said about this transfer, I assure you. And though losing some of the crispness and detail present in the anamorphic widescreen transfer, the full screen version still looks incredible (for a full screen transfer, of course).
But even more amazingly, the quality of the transfer actually pales in comparison to the sound. The Running Man: Special Edition absolutely rocks out of the box, offering both a 6.1 DTS-ES Surround Sound and a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX mix. And these are some serious mixes. Both sound absolutely sublime -- albeit an incredibly loud and aggressive sublimity. In fact, if these audio tracks have any real flaw, the surround could almost be too immersive and aggressive. Both mixes are teeth rattlingly loud, loud, loud. While the dialogue always remains clear and up-front in the mix, the music is incredibly loud, along with the sound effects, and every other noise on the track. Did I mention this was a loud DVD?
For example, the luge sledding sequence down the tunnel into the game arena assaults you from all five (or six) directions like a bunch of thugs hitting you in the head with shovels. It is overwhelmingly awesome to the point of making you physically uncomfortable. But what a soundtrack! The DVD sounds absolutely amazing, with massive use of the rear channels to project every bullet, explosion, punch, and Generic Action Noise imaginable with perfect clarity and massive impact. It makes a boy raised on bad action movies weep with pleasure. Personally, I can suffer a little nausea and ear bleeding for such an amazing DVD soundtrack.
The synth-bass and rock guitar soundtrack is a thing of retro beauty, sounding like a chase sequence from Miami Vice if Arnold was dressed in a white linen suit running through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It absolutely blows the cloth covers off the fronts of your speakers, being beefy and strong in the low end. In the city of the future, helicopters fly overhead almost all the time (apparently) and even when totally in the background and nondescript, they can clearly be heard swirling from front channels to left. Tiny details like this make this surround mix an absolute delight, if slightly overkill. But this is The Running Man, and words like "overkill" need not apply, because nobody in this movie can spell "overkill."
Two commentary tracks are offered on this DVD, the first from executive producer Rob Cohen, and the second from producer Tim Zinnerman and director Paul Michael Glaser. While being fairly standard in the world of commentary tracks (not too exciting, but still factual and interesting), they offer some intriguing backstory into the difficulty getting the film off the ground, the constant battle over violence with the studio, and the underlying themes of violence as parody; but at times, the commentary seems to try too hard to justify the social relevance of their film in the current day. For example, they try comparing the selling of the war in Iraq as entertainment as paralleled with the themes of The Running Man, which to me is a stretch of Rubber Man sized proportions. With the director/producer track in particular, you also get the feeling that these two people had forgotten completely about the film, never ever daring to think that, one day, they would be doing commentary for this film, and desperately try to remember anything relevant.
There are three featurettes included on this DVD. The first, entitled "Game Theory," is a short documentary on the impact of reality TV programming on our popular culture and an examination of the cultural impact on society, which is a fairly interesting angle, and a lot of the parallels between current trends of shows like Fear Factor are certainly amusing to analyze. The second, "Meet the Stalkers," is exactly that...a mix of recycled footage and a little menu dropdown, which brings up baseball card type statistics about each stalker, including their physical prowess, their kills, and their strengths. Cute, no doubt, but fairly unsubstantial, considering this small feature is the only content that directly relates to the film itself on the DVD. As for the third featurette, keep reading...
An unusual amount of controversy surrounds the release of The Running Man: Special Edition, which has nothing to do with the movie itself. Rather, it has to do with one of the featurettes attached to this disc, whose subject matter has irked more than a few DVD shoppers.
The "Lockdown on Main Street" featurette graphically illustrates the carnage and devastation of the World Trade Center disaster, and examines the US PATRIOT act in response to aggravated acts of terrorism, exposing complex issues about personal privacy in the modern age. This feature feels so shockingly misplaced on this DVD that one simply assumes a mistake has been made somewhere.
The unspoken justification, especially after listening to the audio commentary, seems to be that The Running Man is, in fact, a socially relevant movie; a prophetic piece of science fiction that, in the great tradition of such masters as Asimov, Bradbury, Roddenberry, and Heinlein, offer a telling glimpse into a futuristic society with problems that, poignantly, echo our own fundamental (and often irresolvable) social, political or economic issues -- in essence, a piece of artistic work designed to be a subtle critique on the modern-day problems of our own society.
The Running Man is a big, dumb Arnold movie. That is all it is, and it is nothing more. And frankly, that is good enough for me, for it is a glorious one at that, and a personal favorite of mine from childhood. But to try and pass the film off in the modern day as some sort of a harbinger of an American totalitarian paramilitary state, or as a social commentary on the erosion of personal privacy? Well, that is the silliest thing one can imagine.
Personally, I find this amusing, and my politics were not offended by the supplementary content. While the featurettes seem tragically misplaced, and this DVD could have used more content that actually had anything to do with the film itself, there is no denying that the featurettes included are compelling, intriguing, passionate, and very informative. However, a lot of people have responded with great outbursts of anger, resentment, and fury over the obvious political left-ism of this DVD. In fact, on Amazon, most of the criticism and low reviews of this particular DVD stem not from the audio or visual quality of the transfer, but rather, from the belittled rage of people whose politics clash violently with the liberal slant of the featurette content.
My personal favorite quote is the man who wrote, "I DID NOT buy this DVD to be told how I should think!!!" Well, fair enough. And while a discussion of the critical merits of art in relationship to politics and/or art as an actual expression of politics is better left for another forum (or another film entirely, because this is The Running Man after all), I do have the following to say in closing for all people who could conceivably be infuriated and offended by the left-winged supplemental content on this DVD.
You can always not watch them.
This, I humbly suggest, is probably the easiest solution to your political dilemma, because in every other way, this is a phenomenal DVD. And it would be a shame to let personal politics stand in the way of good, solid DVD enjoyment.
If you are still miffed, consider the following. A far more compelling rhetorical question about The Running Man should be: what on earth does the home version of "The Running Man" consist of?
The Running Man isn't the best movie around. It isn't even the best Arnold movie around, a sub-genre spawning an entirely separate category of quality entertainment that resides six feet below the earth's crust. But no matter how you look at it, The Running Man: Special Edition is one heck of a DVD, especially considering its dirt-cheap price.
Get it? Dirt? Earth's crust?...Ah, forget it.
The facts: The Running Man: Special Edition features an amazing transfer, a bogglingly boisterous and impressive array of audio options, a cheap-as-dirt price tag, and a fairly decent offering of commentaries and extras (all political bias aside). For all holdouts, this is the version to get, without question. Any way you slice it, this is a heck of a DVD.
And frankly, we could all do with a little more big dumb Arnold action movies in our lives...if only to keep current Californian politics grounded in surrealism, where they belong.
"Here is Subzero! Now just plain zero!"
Gold. Absolute gold. And worth every penny. Dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Lockdown on Main Street" Featurette
* "Game Theory" Featurette
* "Meet The Stalkers" Featurette
* Audio Commentary with Executive Producer Rob Cohen
* Audio Commentary with Director Paul Michael Glaser and Producer Tim Zinnerman