That titanic Teuton Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in action in "The Running Man," a fast-paced, futuristic pure'e of "Beat the Clock," "Max Headroom," professional wrestling and "The Most Dangerous Game." Pumped and primed for self-parody, the burly star proves as funny as he is ferocious in this tough guy's commentary on America's preoccupation with violence and game shows.
It's set in a media-massaged, totalitarian tomorrowland, first envisioned in a novella by Richard Bachman (alias Stephen King). Screenwriter Steven E. de Souza of "48 Hours" and "Commando" adds familiar shtick and splatter to this kicky screen adaptation. As he did in "Commando," he supports Schwarzenegger with a gutsy broad and lots of macho-lingo -- rejoinders like "He had to split," of a villain he has halved with a chain saw.
The deceased, known as Buzzsaw, had been stalking our hero, a recalcitrant contestant on "The Running Man," a government-backed game show in which convicted felons run for their lives in lieu of trial. It is hosted by diabolical Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson, the one-time kissing host of "Family Feud." He approaches this role with the same loony energy you see in screaming housewives who've just picked the right door on "Let's Make a Deal." He lampoons the role of game show maitre d', billed as "everybody's favorite human," with unctuous polish.
Just as Merv Griffin once picked the puzzles for "Wheel of Fortune," Damon handpicks the contestants with the guidance of the Justice Department. They are released, then pursued and almost always caught by superstar assassins. Fabulous prizes include "trial by jury, suspended sentence or even a full pardon." Lately the ratings have been dropping because the contestants have been wimps.
Enter Schwarzenegger. Shrink-wrapped in a spandex unitard, he's got more bulges than a tube sock stuffed with light bulbs. Chewing a stogie and sweating oily grit, he is warrior, not wimp.
He plays Ben Richards, a former police officer who has been framed for slaughtering 60 innocent civilians in a food riot. Recruited for the high-tech manhunt, the so-called "Butcher of Bakersfield" is assigned "a court-appointed theatrical agent." He signs away all rights to residuals and spin-offs, then pens the contract on the pushy agent's back.
The postapocalyptic setting is borrowed from "Max Headroom" and "Blade Runner," with giant billboard TVs and streetwise couch-potatoes warming themselves beside smoking oil drums. It's an unexpected look for director Paul Michael Glaser, who's known for his pastel police on "Miami Vice." Though he's turned to techie dazzle and earth tones, Glaser retains his small-screen savvy when it comes to pacing police action.
Of course, Schwarzenegger still sounds like he ought to be yodeling. His vowel sounds, like the notes of a whiplashed bassoon, are now an accepted part of his legend. His timing is improving, but do we really need a bon mot for every death blow? However, he does show us a new side -- the romantic galoot. And opposite spitfire Maria Conchita Alonso, he's got more flex-appeal than ever before.
Alonso, a former Venezuelan soap star, is as effervescent as Schwarzenegger is stolid, and the two of them actually seem attracted to each other in a way that won't seem mushy to the testosterone cases who are Schwarzenegger's target audience. Alonso plays the hot-tempered Amber Mendez, a network jingle writer who is kidnaped by Richards but later learns to love the big galoot.
Their scenes are actually stronger than the mighty-man stand-offs, which are filled with standard splatter. Nevertheless, they feature an assortment of eccentric hulks, including former running back Jim Brown as the napalm-powered Fireball; pro wrestler Toru Tanaka as Subzero, a stalker armed with exploding hockey pucks; and my own personal favorite, Erland Van Lidth, a former U.S. wrestling team member as Dynamo, who sings Wagner while electrocuting his prey. Yaphet Kotto and Dweezil Zappa become the hero's lieutenants when he joins the underground resistance.
"The Running Man" marks Schwarzenegger's first starring role as a revolutionary, perhaps the first fallout from his marriage into America's leading liberal family. Nah. The message is irrelevant. It's still the Olympian myth, albeit in a Lycra leotard, that counts with the Arn Man. The Running Man, at area theaters, is rated R for profanity and violence.