The Running Man earns the right to switch on the No Thinking sign with Richard Dawson’s performance. Dawson, not Arnold Schwarznegger, holds the movie together, and he does it so pitch-perfectly that nit-picking seems like an exercise in masochism.
In fact, there’s less to complain about here than in Stephen King’s novel. King’s undefined and contradictory society becomes a police state; his self-destructively angry hero becomes a man falsely accused; and his game, in which innocent bystanders and policeman are targets, becomes a death-match between “criminals” and hired guns, played out in a derelict and empty part of the city. I won’t say it makes sense, exactly, but it makes a lot more sense than the book — just enough for us to be able to ignore it as we grab another handful of popcorn.
Schwarzenegger is Ben Richards, former cop and fall-guy for the government’s murder of scores of civilians during a food riot. His subsequent escape from prison is national news, bringing him to the attention of Damon Killian (Dawson), the host of “The Running Man,” a popular and sadistic television show. When recaptured, Ben is coerced into appearing as a contestant on the show.
Schwarzenegger has complained that director Paul Micheal Glaser “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” That makes Glaser a hero in my book. “Deeper themes”? Give me a break. This movie doesn’t get any deeper than Ben’s double entendres just before or after he kills someone (“He had to split,” he says of a man he’s cut partially in half with a chainsaw).
As for the rest, it’s the television show that makes this movie fun. Dawson, whose 10-year run as host of The Family Feud had only recently ended, plays his evil twin with a fidelity no one else could have matched. Off-air, he’s an egotistical martinet, but on-air, he’s an affable master of audience manipulation. It would have been so easy to inject a smarminess in his portrayal as a wink to the audience that, really, game show hosts are beneath us, but Dawson plays Killian straight, and the movie is better for it. I think it succeeds because of it: if we questioned Killian, we’d question everything else.
Then it would have been no better than the book.