Monday, March 26, 2012

Heavy Action: The Running Man / Surviving the Game

In honor of The Hunger Games taking over OUR LIVES this week, I thought it would be a good time to look back at some murder-for-sport movies not intended for Young Adults. Unless that young adult was ME, because that's totally when I loved all these movies.

And, yes, you guys, I know. Hard Target. But that will be covered in a future Heavy Action, and this is the only chance we'll have to talk about Surviving the Game. We NEED TO TALK about Surviving the Game.

The Running Man (1987)

More than just about any other action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger made movies with a sci-fi bent. Though he never really made any hard science fiction movies -- they're basically still action movies with genre trappings -- a bunch of his films can sit comfortably within the realm of sci-fi: both Terminator movies, Total Recall, The Sixth Day, Junior and, of course, The Running Man.

In the movie, based on the short story by Richard "My Name is Actually Stephen King" Bachman (the screenplay puts the "loose" in "very loose adaptation"), Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a military pilot who is framed for the massacre of some rebels in dystopian 2019 America. He's thrown in jail pretty much so he can break out and go on the lam, take Maria Conchita Alonso hostage and then get captured again so that, instead of being returned to jail, he can be forced to be a contestant on The Running Man, the country's most popular TV show in which civilians are dropped into a subterranean game zone and hunted by "stalkers" with colorful names like Buzzsaw, Dynamo, Subzero and Fireball. The audience places bets on which stalker will get the kill and when...but there's ONE THING THEY DIDN'T COUNT ON. Give up? It's Arnold Schwarzenegger. They didn't count on his awesomeness at killing people.
The Running Man is the kind of action movie that could have only existed in the 1980s, a decade of solipsism that conveniently ignored everything that had come before and assumed anything it had to say was all being said for the first time. The Running Man appears to sincerely believe that no other work of art had ever commented on the relationship of violence and entertainment before, which would almost seem sweetly naive if it wasn't so boneheaded and ignorant. The movie also has the kind of cartoonish excess found in so many '80s action movies, and though it's chalked up to "satire" in The Running Man, it isn't really that much more exaggerated than a dozen other action movies from the decade. When Paul Bartel made Death Race 2000, it was obvious he knew it was funny. Things aren't so clear here. The premise is a bit nutty and some of the costumes and set design are pretty over the top; otherwise, it's business as usual for an '80s action movie.

Those of us that saw the movie as kids in the late '80s have fond memories of Schwarzenegger in his yellow spandex, fucking up heavies like Jim Brown and Professor Toru Tanaka and saying things like "Subzero! Now just PLAIN ZERO!" which I'm not even sure I understand. The point is this: that stuff only makes up about half of the movie's running time. It takes nearly 45 minutes before Schwarzenegger is dropped into the Running Man game zone, and the route the movie takes to get him there is incredibly circuitous. Why is Richards arrested twice? Couldn't he just have been forced into the game after being framed for the massacre? Why have him break out of prison once only to have him captured again? Is it really just to hook him up with Maria Conchita Alsonso? And would the movie be any worse for her absence? The character is irritating and serves no function beyond giving Schwarzenegger a female with whom to have zero chemistry. Then again, there's nothing funny about a dickless moron with a battery up his ass.

There are moments that work, like the beat when the audience starts placing bets on Ben Richards instead of the stalkers (even if the same beat also falls victim to the "old lady swearing" trope), or when Schwarzenegger is trying to distract the terribly-conceived Dynamo and runs towards him shouting "Hey! Lighthead! Hey, Christmas tree!" Lighthead makes me laugh every time, because so little thought seems to have gone into it, but, at the same time, it's exactly the kind of name you'd come up with on the fly. The movie has perhaps more ridiculous Schwarzenegger one-liners than any other, to the point that by the time it's winding down, he only speaks in bad jokes. They're not all winners, either, like when Richards tells Killian: "I'll live to see you eat that contract...but I hope you leave room for my fist, because I'm going to ram into your stomach and break your goddamn spine!" Not quite as succinct as "I'll be back," but brevity is hardly the order of the day in The Running Man.

Of course, The Running Man's secret weapon is Richard Dawson's performance as host Damon Killian. When I first saw the movie at 10 years old, I had no idea that Dawson started out as an actor and had spent six years with home movie enthusiast Bob Crane on Hogan's Heroes. To me, he was just the host of Family Feud, and it blew my mind how good he was as the sleazy villain of Running Man.While there's nothing subtle about Dawson's performance, it's positively grounded in comparison to how outlandish it could have been in order to match the tone of the rest of the movie. He's a dickhead, but he's a completely believable dickhead. It's not even problematic that he's no physical match for Schwarzenegger, either, since we've already seen Richards tear through three other big ass stalkers (plus one fake fight with Jesse Ventura's Captain Freedom). Watching him finally give Killian what's coming to him is satisfying enough.

Apparently, the movie was originally to be directed by Andrew Davis, who has already been discussed in a past Heavy Action as the director of Code of Silence, Above the Law and Under Siege. He parted ways with the movie after two weeks, inspiring someone associated with the production to say "Let's get Starsky!" Yes, directing duties on The Running Man were handed over to Paul Michael Glaser, one half of Starsky & Hutch whose only previous directing credits were a couple TV movies and Band of the Hand. He brings a flat artlessness to the proceedings -- an awareness that he's making satire but little ability to pull it off. Consider that Paul Verhoeven made Robocop the same year as this and you'll get an idea of just how uninspired the satire is in The Running Man.

And, yet, the movie does predict trash like American Gladiators, which premiered just two years later, as well as some reality TV like Fear Factor. That doesn't make it very good, but it is very entertaining. As Schwarzenegger's late '80s output goes, I'd put it squarely between Raw Deal and Predator.

Surviving the Game (1994)
Unlike The Running Man (or The Hunger Games, or The Condemned or Rollerball or Death Race 2000 or Rollerball (2002) or Death Race), Surviving the Game takes all the media commercialization out of murder and brings it back to a simpler time when guys hunted and killed humans for the sport of it. It restores the purity of it all, is what I'm saying. Ice-T plays a homeless guy who is brought by Charles S. Dutton to see Rutger Hauer, who hires T to serve as the guide on an upcoming hunting trip. But wouldn't you know, his party doesn't actually want a homeless guy with no previous hunting experience to act as their hunting guide? That they actually brought him out there because HE'S THE FUCKING PREY?? I know. I didn't see it coming either. But, to be fair, I had my eyes closed and was watching a different movie.

What makes Surviving the Game worth watching is the cast, a veritable who's-who of action movie character actors. There's Rutger Hauer from Nighthawks and Wanted: Dead or Alive and Blind Justice. There's John C. McGinley from Point Break and On Deadly Ground and The Rock. There's Gary Busey from every single action movie, including Lethal Weapon, Predator 2, Point Break, Under Siege and Drop Zone. There's F. Murray Abraham from Amadeus.

What makes Surviving the Game simultaneously impossible to watch is that all of these actors are in TOTALLY DIFFERENT MOVIES. Actually, that's not true. That implies that there is a mixture of styles and tones to the performances that don't gel into a cohesive whole. Everyone is acting in the same movie, but everyone acts as though it is HIS MOVIE. I guess you can't put this many swinging dick alpha male actors in the same frame and not expect them to compete for who can act the loudest. And BOY, DO THEY. Rutger Hauer puts in overtime being creepy and eccentric, which is a lot like a hat wearing a hat. John C. McGinley spits pieces of his lung into the faces of the other actors. William McNamara, playing the youngest and most reluctant member of the hunting party, creates a character just by screaming "DAD!!" over and over and over.

There's kind of a neat idea within Surviving the Game, even though I think its existence is a complete accident. It makes zero sense that this group of hunters would use a homeless guy as the "ultimate" target; the only screening process Hutger uses to see if Mason (that's Ice-T's name; he's Mason the homeless man with dreadlocks) qualifies as their prey is that he asks him how many cigarettes he smokes in a day and makes him run on a treadmill for 30 minutes. You've got the job! I'm not suggesting there should have been some strenuous battery of tests just to find out if he would be worth, you know, murdering, but if the idea is supposed to be that these guys want it to be as sporting as possible, they really aren't doing the legwork. This, of course, is where the one sort-of neat idea is: what I think is an oversight on the part of screenwriter Eric Bernt (Romeo Must Die) actually adds some interesting subtext to the movie. These guys are just poseurs. Pussies. They claim to want the ultimate hunt, but they don't really want it. They want something easy -- that's why they pick Mason. It's like when Dick Cheney was out shooting that guy in the face; before he made mankind his prey, he was shooting birds that were basically tied down. It's the illusion of hunting without having to do any really hard work. That's Ice-T -- a bird with a rope around his feet. Only guess what? He's the ONE THING THEY DIDN'T COUNT ON.
This is the only way to rationalize the central conceit of Surviving the Game, because otherwise it makes less sense than it seems to on the surface. Great pains are taken to set up the fact that all of the hunters are respected members of society -- they're doctors and lawyers. Gary Busey is a psychiatrist, which is funny enough on his own, made even funnier by the FUCKING ENDLESS monologue he is given about a scar on his face (though Ice-T's timing on the "Do you tell your patients this story?" punchline provides the one honest laugh in the movie). This is the best we can do? In The Most Dangerous Game, the gag was that Leslie Banks was an insanely wealthy eccentric, and what do you get the guy who has everything? Humans to hunt and kill. That doesn't work for the villains of Surviving the Game. If the movie was made today, they would be CEOs and Wall Street douchebags; the metaphor would be way more obvious, but at least there would be one. Were doctors and lawyers really the 1% back in 1994?

Spike Lee's cinematographer Ernest Dickerson directed this one, and he did not do a good job (he has made a few decent B-movies; this is not one). He doesn't know how to stage an action sequence. He doesn't really even have a sense of where to place the camera, which is odd considering that was his job. Even if the movie had looked great, though, it wouldn't have made a difference. It's obvious that Dickerson was steamrolled by his cast from the first day of shooting, who all had very big ideas about how their characters should be played. Dickerson either went along with it, or tried to make suggestions that fell on deaf, overacting ears. The one guy who isn't ridiculous and over-the-top in the movie is Ice-T, who is so far out of his depth it's embarrassing to watch. He had given an authentic, charismatic performance in New Jack City, but that was good casting and not necessarily good acting. Surviving the Game calls upon none of his limited skill set as an actor, instead demanding a guy who is both sympathetic and badass. He needs to be determined to survive. What's more, we have to believe he's capable of doing so.

There are a few moments early in the movie where it seems as though Ice-T is playing his character like an actually schizophrenic crazy homeless person. That would be have been so interesting. Turns out it's not really an acting choice, though, and instead is just the result of his limited ability.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of John Woo's Hard Target, but as an action movie update of The Most Dangerous Game, it's vastly superior to Surviving the Game. At least a movie like The Running Man has the whole violence-and-media angle to fall back on so it can pass itself off as satire. Minus that framework, Surviving the Game is just supposed to be a straightforward commentary on man's primal connection to killing. And to teach us that rich white men are assholes.


Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below. 


  1. I haven't seen either one of these movies. Is "Running Man" worth seeing for Richard Dawson alone? I'm a huge "Family Feud" fan (and specifically Dawson's run hosting the show; caught a ton of repeats on Game Show Network before that cable channel went to shit recently) so, if Dawson alone merits it, I'll track down a cheap BD or streaming rental. For years I've been hearing/reading how awesome Dawson is in "Running Man" but your paragraph describing his role in the movie is the first time that I've actually wanted to watch him. Is Dawson as good as advertised or is my imagination of what he's like better than what the actual movie delivers?

    Ernest Dickerson stroke out as a movie director (one word: "Bulletproof"... yikes!) but as a genre TV director he's found his wheelhouse lately. He directed the Season 2 finale of "The Walking Dead," which might be the 2nd-best episode in that series since the Darabont-directed Pilot. He's done "Dexter" episodes for the past couple of seasons plus a ton of network/cable dramas along with the infrequent movie vehicle for rappers ("Bones" for Snoop Dog, "Never Die Alone" for DMX, etc). Hey, it's a living.

    And "The Hunger Games" dominates your life only if you let it. Like "Harry Potter," "Saw" "Twilight" (yes, I know one of these doesn't belong! :-P) if I ain't got the desire or will to see 'em then I ain't gonna watch 'em. So I haven't. :-)

    1. Oh, I forgot. "...a veritable who's-who of action movie character actors. There's Rutger Hauer... John C. McGinley...Gary Busey... There's F. Murray Abraham from Amadeus." I actually almost choked on my morning Pop Tart from laughing so hard at that last line. :-)

  2. I didn't know it was possible to so thoroughly enjoy reading a 2000-word column about a couple of action movies I don't recall ever seeing. Turns out that Patrick Bromley was the ONE THING I DIDN'T COUNT ON.