If you were to rank the movies I have seen more than any others in my life, you wouldn't find many classics on there, no Kurosawa, no Kubrick, no Billy Wilder. (Though Some Like It Hot might come close.) The movies I have seen repeatedly are the ones I saw because they were my only options; they were the movies that happened to coincide with the explosion of the VCR, which happened to coincide with my own adolescence. It is important to remember that when VCRs first starting hitting every home in the United States—including those in small Illinois farmtowns like mine—the gimmick was not that you could watch a movie at home, but that you could watch it again. You could pause it; you could rewind it; you could fast-forward past the boring parts. In the early days of VCRs, official copies of movies often cost up to $99.99; when you taped a movie off television, you kept it and protected it. It was valuable content. You collected VHS tapes—changing the speed and quality of the picture so you could fit two or three movies on one blank tape—not out of novelty or compulsion. You did it because there was nothing fucking else to watch.
This meant that certain movies, you watched over and over and over. I vividly remember watching movies with my little sister that, as soon as they were over, we would rewind just to watch again. We didn't have cell phones or computers or even video games, not yet, to keep us interested. So we'd just watch the movie we just watched again. Hell, we liked it. Why not? Because of this, when I come across movies today that I haven't seen in more than 20 years, I still find myself reciting dialogue right alongside them, repressed memories involuntarily bubbling up. If you're around my age, they're probably the same movies you saw over and over. The Leitch family's regulars? Superman II. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Clue. Adventures in Babysitting. Revenge of the Nerds. But all told, I bet the movie I've seen more than any other, one I haven't seen at least 20 years, is The Running Man.
In the wake of Richard Dawson's death yesterday, you're reading a lot of retrospectives of The Running Man that point out how this genre action movie was perceptive enough to have foretold today's world of reality television and The Hunger Games and rampant, soulless commercialism, that say the film was ahead of its time (though not ahead of Paddy Chayefsky's). That may all be true, but try telling that to the kid who watched the film pretty much on loop from 1988-1991. I just thought it was awesome. It had everything a 13-year-old boy could want in a film, from Arnold Schwarzenegger in full-on grunting-and-screaming mode, a futuristic competition that featured people being impaled on stakes and dragged behind motorcycles, huge wrestlers fighting each other with chainsaws, Maria Conchita Alonso in a spandex body suit. (She looks a little different now.) The movie is pitched at the intellectual level of old-school professional wrestling—the "look a shiny object!" level—which made it irresistible; each "stalker" assigned to kill the contestants got his own intro, with rabid fans cheering his every utterance and with all sorts of pyrotechnics. My favorite was Dynamo.
(Three amazing factoids about Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, the Dutch actor who played Dynamo. One: He was an actual opera singer whose talent was written into the character's "arc." Two: He was a computer science graduate of MIT. Three: He died of a heart attack, at the age of 34, just a few months after production on the film wrapped. In yet another parallel to Heath Ledger, Van Lidth De Jeude never got to see audiences revel in his signature performance.)
The more you look at the cast, the more ridiculous it gets. Jesse Ventura—in a toupee!—is in this movie. Jim Brown is in the movie. Dweezil Zappa is in the movie. Freaking Mick Fleetwood is in the movie. It also has perhaps my single favorite line of Arnold Schwarzenegger dialogue, and boy, there's plenty to choose from.
But honestly, the reason I loved this movie as a kid, and the reason clips from the film still pop today, is not because of Arnold, or the silly dystopian future, or some guy getting castrated by a chainsaw. It's because of Richard Dawson. For all the talk of the movie supposedly being ahead of its time, Dawson's performance is the only thing that feels modern anymore; you can imagine him as an evil, conniving media-monster villain just as well today as 25 years ago. He's basically Simon Cowell crossed with Bob Barker with some Howard Stern thrown in there for good measure: That's all to say, he's basically Richard Dawson, who had the "I know all this shit's ridiculous so let's just have fun" wink decades before it became the default cultural setting. It's perfect for The Running Man, which wants Dawson to be the loathsome bad guy ... but is fully aware that he's the most charismatic actor in the film. (Casting the glib, smooth-talking Dawson opposite a still-struggling-with-the-language Schwarzenegger is a joke that's so effective it's almost mean.) You never cheer for Dawson's Killian—Dawson is charming and funny but never likable; he's far too much of an opportunistic huckster for that—but you do keep waiting for him to get back on screen.
Basically, the film is chainsaw fights occasionally interrupted by Richard Dawson having a grand old time. He's the bad guy, the comic relief, and essentially the film's narrator all at once, and he pulls it off so well it's a bit of a shock he never acted again. He could have played so many great '80s villains; if any of those old Bond films had dared to have a sense of humor, he'd have been terrific as a Rupert Murdoch-esque media kingpin bent on world domination via schlock television.
The best part about Dawson's performance is how he lets the meta of the Family Feud Guy Playing An Evil Game Show Host thing work for him, infuse his whole performance. He's winking at the audience the entire time but not self-consciously and insincerely; he wants you to hate him in a way that makes you wonder if he always wanted you to hate him, to hate his job, to hate his very television-ness. He's like the evil Regis. It's kind of an amazing performance, when you think about it; it'd be like Jay Leno suddenly showing up as a self-loathing, back-stabbing talk show host who secretly murders guests he doesn't like. (And being really good at it.)
I didn't get any of this PoMo bullshit when I used to watch The Running Man, though. I just thought the guy from Family Feud was awesome and that I couldn't wait to see Arnold kill him. There was a time that that was enough. There was a time that I couldn't get enough of it.
(By the way, someone on YouTube has helpfully condensed The Running Man down to 11 minutes for you, and us. I watched the whole thing this morning. It's essentially the same experience as watching the original movie in its entirety.)
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.