Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Running Man

The Running Man
seen on TV @ IFC

Over four years of doing this blog and I have yet to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger? This must not stand!

Arnie was one of my cinematic heroes growing up, especially once I got cable and I could see his earlier films as well as his more recent ones. Lots of film writers have talked about the action movie stars of the 80s and 90s and how they reflected the attitude of America at large, especially under Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Elder. How ironic, then, that perhaps the biggest action movie star of all was a foreigner, a former bodybuilding champ who didn't have to do much more than flex his muscles and punch out the bad guys - at least in the beginning.

And America accepted him, in a tremendous way. Back then, we wanted our movie heroes to be larger than life, in a way we rarely, if ever, see anymore. Arnie and Sly and Chuck and Steven and JCVD and Bruce and Dolph - these were guys who took no shit and kicked all kinds of ass, and the characters they played and the settings they were in didn't matter much, as long as we got to see them do what they did best. In that sense, they were not unlike the silent movie heroes of days long gone by. People responded to the personas they generated over the course of their filmographies, which tended to carry over from one film to the next.

Arnie was the muscle-bound, strong-but-silent type, the grim badass who was deadly with a machine gun or a sword or his bare hands, whether fighting powerful wizards or alien assassins, as a good guy or a bad guy, and I loved it as much as everyone else did. Chalk it up to boyhood power fantasies if you like, although as I said, I didn't come to really appreciate Arnie until I got cable in the mid-80s and I could see movies like Conan the Barbarian and Commando and Predator. (I'm fairly sure I had already seen The Terminator by then. Not sure, though.)

The Running Man was an odd duck in the sense that he's supposed to be a "regular guy," with a "regular" name like "Ben Richards," despite the fact that he talks with a foreign accent and has bulging biceps! In his other films, his physique could be explained as part of his character as a soldier, or a savage warrior from an age undreamt of, or an artificial intelligence from the future. But it didn't matter! We still accepted him in this role because he's still a badass doing badass things. It's as if he became an American in the movies before he became an American for real.

And as an American in the movies, he had more of a swagger, more of an attitude as a result. Here we see him tossing off more one-liners and silly puns as he disposes of his adversaries, in addition to his by-now trademark catch-phrase, "I'll be back." (All good action heroes need one!) And indeed, by this point he's much more comfortable, much more relaxed as a movie star, and it shows. 

He was ready for the next phase of his career, where he could portray more complicated characters, relatively speaking (Total Recall, True Lies) and take baby steps into comedy (Twins, Junior) and self-parody (Last Action Hero). He could even return to his signature character, the Terminator, and put a spin on it that retains the spirit but also provides a great re-interpretation. All told, from 1982-94, he had a phenomenal run of films unmatched by any other action movie star.

But of course, it wasn't all wine and roses. We suspect now that Arnie may have been a little too friendly with the women sometimes. His marriage to Maria Shriver wasn't as happy as it could have been. And he had his share of controversy as governor of California. It's always a hard thing when you discover your idols have feet of clay. Even today, I still see him, to a degree, as he was during his peak as a movie star, and it's hard for me to accept that he might not have been a good guy. I bought into the myth of Arnie, manufactured through the movies, and I want to accept that. Ultimately, Arnie's story is the kind that could've only been made in America.

So why haven't I seen any of his post-governorship movies? I suspect the answer has less to do with Arnie specifically than with the action movie genre in general. I accept that Arnie and Sly and Bruce and all the rest have gotten older. But action movies today aren't like they were thirty years ago. For one thing, Arnie didn't need a cape and a mask to be a superhero; he already was one! More importantly, though, there was a rougher, anything-goes spirit that's missing from today's more sanitized, PG-13 movies. Also, they don't feel as special anymore - at least not the American ones. In this, as in many other things, it would appear that foreign countries are better at doing what we were once the best at.

Watching The Running Man once again made me think of reality TV and how wacky it's gotten. (It's set in 2017 - only three years away!) Recently, I saw my mother watching one of those shows - I think it was Survivor, not sure - where the contestants have to survive in what looked like some jungle environment, but the real kicker was this: they were naked. Naturally, the naughty bits were blurred or pixelated, so looking at it didn't have quite the prurient appeal it might have had under other circumstances, but this does seem like the kind of TV show one would find in the future dystopias of films like The Running Man or Robocop or what have you. So I guess the future is here. Yay?

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