Friday, 20 March 2009

The Running Man

You'd be hard pressed to find a mainstream action film more callous than 1987's The Running Man. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a former government stooge, framed by his superiors for having a twinge of morality on an euthanise-the-poor mission. An enemy of the state, he is cast into a gladiatorial TV show for the dribbling mob's amusement. The film opens with Schwarzenegger refusing orders, then battering most of his crewmates prone. This mutiny sequence is replayed throughout in various forms. Sometimes as it happened, more often in an edited form meant to portray Schwarzenegger as the blood-thirsty architect of the massacre. Regardless of intent, the sequence is always told with the same impossible shot geography, suggesting that in this dystopian future surveillance is total, and shooting for the edit.

Schwarzenegger's role is especially interesting because the script has to juggle Ben Richards the sympathetic lead character, as well as the star's emerging action persona. Schwarzenegger's needs easily take precedence. By this point, he was practically a sub-genre. As such, Ben Richards has no moral dimension what-so-ever. He rejects his makeshift friends' revolutionary ideas as nonsense, instead pragmatically fighting simply to stay alive. Schwarzenegger plays Richards as a modern interpretation of his Conan character - lethal musculature possessed of a calculating mind. He revels in the slaughter, quipping and goading the brutalised, WWF Stalker characters sent to terminate him.

When Schwarzenegger is offered a deal by the network to become a featured Stalker it is almost surprising he doesn't take it. Instead he obliterates the camera allowing the link-up, making horrific threats on the lives of his tormentors. Schwarzenegger's Ben Richards is not a character, he's pure plot progression. He powers through lethal situations to advance the tale, ticking off the 'Boss' characters as he goes. It's no surprise that The Running Man inspired countless scrolling beat 'em up video games. It's a great action template - a merciless hero battling impossible odds. In the entirety of the film there is only one hint of a human personality behind the one-man gulag - the way in which Richards interacts with Maria Conchita Alonso's Amber.

Pre-capture, Schwarzenegger takes her hostage and hurries her to a concrete airport in an effort to effect an escape. His hand rests menacingly around her neck in a kind of GI Joe death-grip. He explains it away as insurance, should she try to get away from him. If she gets any ideas he can snap her neck like a twig etc. Much later in the film, after Alsono's character has been betrayed by her superiors and cast into the game, she becomes Schwarzenegger's ally and notional love interest. At the film's conclusion the two embrace having destroyed the terrible network that propagates the show. They kiss and detach from each other, standing eye to eye. Schwarzenegger's hand snakes up into the same, clasping hold, before leading her away into the sunset. Domination. It's always been his kink.

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