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RICHARDS: I'll be back
KILLIAN: Only in a rerun.
Nestled around Arnold Schwarzenegger's more enduring 1980s hits, THE TERMINATOR and PREDATOR, is this adaptation of a 1982 novel by Richard Bachman (later revealed to be Stephen King's pseudonym).
Arnie plays Ben Richards, a police pilot wrongfully accused of firing on innocent citizens, who escapes from the labour camp he's sent to for his crime, only to be later captured while trying to flee the country with hostage Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso). Richards then winds up on the country's most popular entertainment bloodsport, 'The Running Man'—hosted by Damon Killian* (Richard Dawson), where he plays the game to survive and expose the deception and lies at the heart of it.
[* the best bad guy name ever? ]
This whole concept felt fresh at the time, and is an obvious precursor to BATTLE ROYALE and THE HUNGER GAMES. However, THE RUNNING MAN can't help feeling dated 27 years later, by virtue of its excruciatingly '80s synth soundtrack, the unimaginative backdrop to the titular game (a concrete wasteland with empty warehouse), and fact Richards encounters a variety of silly WWF-style "stalkers" intend on killing him. And yes, they all have appropriately silly nicknames and predictable modes of attack: a man who fights with a chainsaw on a motorbike called Buzzsaw; a man who specialises in hockey-based weaponry called Professor Subzero; a fat Opera-singing electricity wielder called Dynamo; a middle-aged man with a flamethrower called Fireball; and ten-time former champ 'Captain Freedom' (Jesse Ventura*).
[ * Strangely, Ventura and Alonso both appear in PREDATOR movies, as does co-star Sven-Ole Thorsen as Killian's bodyguard.]
Unfortunately, those villains aren't particularly engaging or exciting to watch by today's cinematic standards, so the whole film begins to drag a lot sooner than expected. On the plus side, the cheesiness of the film has quadrupled in the intervening years and there are loads of groanworthy one-liners from Arnie ("he had to split"), but which also include the best non-TERMINATOR use of his "I'll be back" catchphrase.
Laudably praised at the time, the saving grace of THE RUNNING MAN is the casting of Richard Dawson as its villainous gameshow presenter—whose role lends itself added humour for U.S audiences, as Dawson was the real-life host of classic gameshow FAMILY FEUD. Indeed, the talent behind this film is one of the weirder aspects about it, because Fleetwood Mac's drummer Mick Fleetwood co-stars as a resistance leader called Mic, and was directed by Paul Michael Glaser (from STARSKY & HUTCH)—whom Arnie didn't rate because of his TV background, as a last-minute replacement for George P. Cosmatos (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II). Alex Cox (REPO MAN) was also in the frame at one point, but Glaser got the job and... yeah, only created a serviceable, uninspired film.
I notice that THE RUNNING MAN cost $27m and only made $38 at the U.S box-office, so clearly even 1987 audiences didn't take to it. Screenwriter Steven E. de Souza would go on to write DIE HARD, while director Glaser would probably say this was his pinnacle with THE CUTTING EDGE, THE AIR UP THERE and KAZAAM next on his resume.
CHANCE: Hunting season... is over.
Most people agree that Hong Kong's legendary action movie director John Woo didn't make a truly great U.S movie until 1997's FACE/OFF, but before then came 1996's BROKEN ARROW and this 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle HARD TARGET.
JCVD plays Chance Boudreaux, an unemployed Cajun sea merchant who agrees to help a woman called Natasha (Yancy Butler) find her missing "daddy", before discovering he was a victim of an illegal manhunt organised by affluent sportsman Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen). It's not long before Chance's investigating draws the attention of Fouchon's hunters, who train their sights on him as their latest human prey. Inevitably, JCVD's roundhouse kicks and head-butting prowess makes his execution considerably tougher than first predicted.
Until now I didn't realise HARD TARGET is actually a loose adaptation of 1942's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (itself based on a short story), but it seems they only really have a concept in common. And it's a juicy one that allows for a very straightforward movie peppered with moments of crazy violence (although Woo had to make big cuts to achieve an R rating for release), and scenes allowing for Henriksen and his right-hand sadist Pik Van Cleaf to go crazy. This is actually one of the better performances from Henriksen in full-on hammy villain mode, and it's a shame JCVD couldn't provide equal counterbalance.
For while 'the muscles from Brussels' looks great and can kick-ass with the best of them (Woo expanded the action sequences because of JCVD's abilities, having originally intended Kurt Russell to star), his acting performance is disappointingly subdued. Maybe Russell would have been a better choice, although JCVD comes into his own during the climactic warehouse battle—which also seems to be the moment Woo becomes more confident and his signatures (slow-motion, flying doves) become more prevalent.
Back in the day, I remember HARD TARGET being a fun rental with a handful of memorable images (JCVD balancing atop a moving motorbike, kicking a can of gasoline up towards a guy's face before shooting it into a fiery bomb), but today it felt a little humdrum. Henriksen was still a blast, and Vosloo was genuinely scary in his pre-MUMMY days, but it's only really worth watching for the third act with JCVD picking off Henriksen's men one-by-one in a bayou.