The Running Man (Summer Film Log)

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Is The Running Man a good film?

I have no idea, but I’ve watched it at least a dozen times in the past 20 years, and I’ll watch it again. The 1987 film is certainly not the singular artistic vision of a supremely gifted auteur; it is not well-acted; the set design is imitative at best and terribly cheesy at worst; the costumes are silly; the music sucks. But The Running Man is zany fun, not least of all because its clumsy satire of a society clamoring to be entertained at any cost is as relevant as ever.  Ironically though, The Running Man’s satire inevitably reproduces the exact thing it aims to critique: a loud, violent, silly distracting entertainment.

The Running Man foreground’s its plot in a (now retro-)futuristic font scroll at the film’s outset:

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Those “high-tech gladiators” (dressed in ridiculous outfits and bearing ridiculous names like “Subzero” and “Captain Freedom”) stalk “contestants on a TV show called The Running Man. The show is hosted by Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson (who you may know from reruns of Family Feud). Dawson fits into the film better than any other player—indeed his loose, improvisational, menacing charm is part and parcel of an entertainment empire built on attractive deception. He’s the consummate Master of Ceremonies, presiding over every aspect of his media empire. Dawson’s nemesis is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays Ben Richards, a former cop framed for a massacre. There’s a lot of fake news in Running Man, including an extended sequence of digital editing where faces are mapped onto body doubles. Schwarzenegger winds up on The Running Man, kills a bunch of stalkers, clears his name, and becomes a figurehead of the resistance.

Director Paul Michael Glasser (who played Starsky on Starsky and Hutch and later directed the Shaq-vehicle Kazaam) brings a workman-like approach to the film. His shots are often clumsy, and moments that should telegraph horror often come off as funny or just silly, as early in the film when a prisoner’s head explodes when he tries to escape a labor camp. Glasser makes no attempt to rein in Schwarzenegger’s ham. We get scenes where Schwarzenegger tries to imbue his character with a small measure of realism or pathos, and yet his mugging one-liners undercut any character building. He’s a cartoon of a cartoon, which is as it should be.

Schwarzenegger’s campy performance is balanced by María Conchita Alonso, who invests her foil Amber with a soul that belies the cheesy lines she’s forced to deliver.  Alonso has the closest thing to a character arc in The Running Man, and arguably, she anchors the film—she’s a stand-in for the film’s viewer, a normal person who gets swept up into adventure. Yaphet Kotto also stars in The Running Man, but he’s woefully underused, perhaps because his acting is simply too good; his naturalism doesn’t mesh in the film’s campy tone. Other bit players work wonderfully though. Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa try to play it cool as resistance fighters, but the effect on screen is endearingly goofy. Mick Fleetwood would have been about 40 when the film came out, but he looks like he’s about 70…which is how old he is now. (There is a fan theory about this, of course). Dweezil wears a goddamn beret. The stalkers include professional wrestlers Professor Tanaka and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, professional wrestler and opera singer Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, and NFL great Jim Brown. Ventura apparently could not be restrained from eating the scenery around him. He twitches and snarls, and delivers his lines as if he were speaking to Mean Gene Okerlund. It seems if director Glasser simply let his actors play versions of themselves. This is reality TV, after all.

The real success of Glasser’s direction is, ironically, the limitations of his aesthetic vision. The film looks like a TV show, and indeed, the strongest shots approximate TV shows and their live audiences. The Running Man is at its best when blending its satire of cheap Hollywood elements into the film proper, as in the ludicrous reality TV clips interspersed throughout (like Climbing for Dollars), or in the repeated montages set to cheesy wailing keytar jams, featuring a troupe of sassy flash dancers, the camera ogling their buns of steel. Ironically too, the fight scenes between the stalkers and Schwarzenegger’s team are actually the dullest element of the film—they look like bad TV (which is basically what they are). The Running Man wants to satirize the way cheap entertainments distract a populace and cheapen human worth, but it uses the same tools as the cheap entertainments it wants to skewer.

The Running Man is about spectacle culture, and is hence larded with shots of crowds reacting to what they see on screens. The film’s viewer can see the silly crowds cheering the stalkers or booing Schwarzenegger or enjoying Dawson’s charms, but the viewer is also a spectator himself. In the words of Dawson’s Killian, the film strives to “give the people what they want” — which here means an uplifting ending—Viva La Resistance!—a zany horrific comedy that simultaneously critiques and condones our worst impulses And yet the resistance uses the same tools to defeat the oppressive entertainment empire—video editing designed for mass consumption by a spectacle society. It’s Pop Art without the “Art.”

The Running Man is slightly stupid, which is a great part of its enduring charm. Its greatest stupidity is in its attempts to be clever—but again, there’s the charm of it. It’s a film about Bad TV that actually looks and feels like Bad TV. The film is like the less-talented but affable little cousin of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, which came out the same year. Both films satirize an emerging media-driven dystopian culture, but Robocop is actually a good film. The Running Man winks a bit too much (in contrast to, say, 1989’s Road House, probably the best film I can think of that plays its satire so straight that it potentially confounds its viewers).

And yet for all its silly weaknesses and bad hyperbole, The Running Man’s prognosis of American culture is painfully accurate. Fake news, bad actors, a TV president, lives thoroughly mediated by media, degradation of the human condition as entertainment—the Omnipresent Screen as the Ultimate Authority. The Running Man‘s 1987 vision of the future seems more accurate than the future posited in the film I watched yesterday, 1984And yet 1984 captures an emotional truth that The Running Man sets out to crush or gloss over or convert into something artificial, the idea or representation of a feeling, but not the feeling itself. That’s what entertainment does.

How I watched it: On a large television, via a streaming service, with semi-full attention.

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Road House Bar Brawls

(Fight Week continues at Biblioklept. Road House (read my essay!) is one of my favorite films of all time).

Road House, Paul Verhoeven, Modern Action Films, and The Ironic Vision of the Viewer

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Twenty years after its release, Rowdy Herring’s neo-western Road House holds up better than ever. The film stars an iconic Patrick Swayze as a philosophical cooler named Dalton hired to clean up a road house bar. In this process, Swayze’s Dalton discovers that the small town is under the thumb of the bullying gangster Brad Wesley (played with zealous malice by Ben Gazzara). Dalton cleans up, kicking ass without bothering to take names, and leaving a not-unsubstantial body count. This short plot review in no way conveys the brilliance of this film, which can’t really be captured in words–Road House must be witnessed. You have to see the rampant brawling, hear the awesome dialog (sample: “Pain don’t hurt), experience the spectacle that is Road House. That said, not everyone can appreciate what’s going on here: it merits a 5.7 out of 10 at IMDB and a 42% at Rotten Tomatoes. In short, the film is divisive. In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “Road House exists right on the edge between the “good-bad movie” and the merely bad. I hesitate to recommend it, because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer.” A careful reading of Ebert’s review reveals that he really enjoyed the film. “Was it intended as a parody?” he asks. “I have no idea, but I laughed more during this movie than during any of the so-called comedies I saw during the same week.”

Ebert’s question of intentionality is instructive (if not ultimately that important). Any savvy viewer–especially those with a fine-tuned sense of “ironic vision”–will have to ask herself whether director Rowdy Herring and his crew meant to create such a sublime parody, or if the resulting masterpiece is just a happy accident. The simple answer to the question is that it doesn’t really matter, of course, but I still find it a curious issue of aesthetics, especially in light of a new breed of action films that are particularly self-aware. These include Jason Statham’s Crank films (2006 and 2009), movies that ask the viewer to suspend any rudimentary understanding of physics in exchange for ninety-minute doses of adrenaline overdrive. I’ve actually just described most Statham vehicles, but it’s the knowingness of the Crank movies that make them such a joy: part of the joke is that the film recognizes its ludicrousness. The Cranks want to make sure that the audience gets that they get that the audience is getting what the films are getting at. 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up, starring Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti operates on the same principle. Shoot ‘Em Up is a series of action set pieces so ridiculous that the phrase “over the top” doesn’t even begin to function as a critique (during one of the film’s many, many gun battles, Owen’s character delivers a baby and then cuts the umbilical cord by shooting it). In a sense, films like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank operate outside of any normal critique, including not just visual cues but also dialog to announce their parodic intent (Giamatti’s villain exclaims that “Violence is one of the most fun things to watch,” at one point). This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to be critical of such films (it’s very, very possible, actually), just that the films incorporate a sort of generational “ironic vision” of their audience as part of the viewing experience.

Indeed, these films count their success on the audience’s ability to “get”–and appreciate–the irony being conveyed. While action films have long used irony and meta-fictional devices as part of their vocabulary, those devices have usually been an invitation to the viewer to deepen his or her fantastical identification with the film. 1993’s Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero is a consummate example here; in this dreadful film an action hero comes to life at the behest of a young boy who becomes a surrogate for the audience. The meta-troping here isn’t so much ironic; rather, it’s just another reification of hero-spectacle-audience dynamics. Films like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank, in contrast, ultimately disconnect the heroic-identification most traditional action movies strive for. This isn’t to say that the audience member’s ironic vision prevents him or her from living vicariously for 90 minutes through the hero (or, more accurately, anti-hero)–it’s just that the vicarious, distorted nature of the identification is always on display. Put another way, Shoot ‘Em Up, Crank, and other movies that fit this mold (these might include Tony Scott’s unfairly maligned 2005 film Domino, 2008’s Death Race, 2007’s Smokin’ Aces, and even Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (although surely that particular film is a separate discussion)) invite their audiences to both revel in and mock the conventions of heroic narrative filmmaking. These films take place entirely within scare quotes; there’s no danger that their irony might be misinterpreted. Only the most callow of viewers will not “get” the intentionality of parodic irony here (contrast Ebert’s unconfused review of Shoot ‘Em Up with his questioning of Road House; there’s not a hint of nervousness that the silliness of the latter might be unintentional). These films wink so often at the viewer that the gesture becomes a distracting nervous tic.

While I have a certain fondness for the parodic, ironic action films I’ve mentioned, I have to admit that their greatest failure is, ironically, their defining characteristic. They announce their parodic content at all times, squashing any of the anxieties about intention that a viewing of Road House engenders, and, in doing so, they lose an unqualifiable, unquantifiable joy. The greatest parodies never announce themselves as such, and thus create a contradictory balance of trust and anxiety from savvy viewers. In my estimation, no one does this better than director Paul Verhoeven, auteur behind Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. Verhoeven’s films are doubly generous: on one hand, they function beautifully as straightforward Hollywood fare; on the other hand, with the assistance of a particular ironic vision, they are brilliant satires of not just culture and politics, but also of the very art of filmmaking and the implicit contract between film and audience. In contrast with the studied irony of certain latter day action movies, the films of Verhoeven don’t blink, let alone wink at their audience, making the irony that much more delicious. Road House, without the benefit of a director with the oeuvre of Verhoeven, is certainly one of the most quizzical documents of the late eighties. Is the film self-aware? Swayze’s winning performance gives nothing away, allowing the audience to fully identify with his rampant bad-assery. There is no simple answer to the question the film must prompt to any contemporary viewer, just as it did to Ebert in 1989: “Is this for real?” It’s that anxiety of indulgence, of undecidability, this central ambiguity that makes Road House such a joy to watch. The film does not force you to watch it through any particular ideological lens. Celebrate Road House‘s 20th anniversary by giving it a proper re-viewing; whether you bring your ironic vision is up to you.