Trilogy of Terror: Deathrow Gameshow (1987)

Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in this year’s trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

The films I feature in Trilogy of Terror could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. This year’s theme is “The Most Dangerous Games,” movies about competitions whose outcomes mean the difference between life and death.

As a bonus entry this year, I took at look at the page-to-screen adaptation of The Running Man. You may want to read that before continuing into this review, as it served as an unexpectedly great point of comparison.

Once I decided to cover games of life and death, The Running Man came immediately to mind. I didn’t realize at that point, however, that in the exact same year, another, much smaller film was released that handled the same premise far better.

Deathrow Gameshow is actually fun. Not great, and I probably wouldn’t push back too hard if you told me it wasn’t even good, but it sure as hell approached its premise creatively and with an infectious giddiness. The Running Man was too busy letting Arnold Schwarzenegger disembowel his pursuers and his dialogue too have any fun. Deathrow Gameshow can’t imagine doing a movie like this and not having fun.

It’s a silly comedy that may have something to say about the media, desensitization, celebrity, and God knows what else, but a cheap laugh is still a laugh and it will gladly stoop to one at any time.

The premises in the two films are remarkably similar, and certainly coincidental. The fact that they were released in the same year means writer and director Mark Pirro happened to come up with Deathrow Gameshow in a case of parallel invention.

Deathrow Gameshow, just like The Running Man, focuses on a popular game show in which convicted criminals risk their lives for a chance at freedom.

Here, that show is called Live or Die, and it combines familiar elements from Let’s Make a Deal, The Price is Right, Double Dare, and more.

Live or Die is hosted by Chuck Toedan, played by John McCafferty as a character who’s far better described as amoral than evil. He gets no particular thrill out of killing his contestants, but rather respects his role as the modern evolution of a necessary profession: that of executioner.

McCafferty is no Richard Dawson, but he does well enough with this spin on the character type, and it’s nice to follow the experiences of the host rather than one of the show’s contestants.

He plays the role perfectly, which is assisted by his naturally boyish good looks. He’s not the old hand that Dawson is, the seasoned, calm professional…he’s the young buck who enjoys the attention and likes seeing himself on television. He’s easily frazzled and instantly terrified whenever someone or something forces him to step out of his comfort zone. He oozes oily charm, but none of it is calculated. He’s just naturally hollow enough to make for a great game show host.

Chuck, also unlike Damon Killian, is a divisive personality within the world of the film. He has his legions of supporters and mindlessly cheering fans, but he also has a large number of detractors that push back against Live or Die, seeing it for the exploitative horror that it really is.

The thing that allows Chuck to sleep at night is that these are convicts who were already on death row; they’ve been found guilty of their crimes and have already been sentenced to death. What’s wrong with giving them a showy sendoff? With giving them something to look forward to? With giving them a chance to win some money for their families on the way out?

Live or Die has also had a seemingly positive impact on society, with Chuck claiming in a talk show appearance that violent crime has dropped 30% since the game show debuted. It’s keeping viewers entertained and indirectly making their world safer.

Additionally, it offers a small ray of hope in the darkest situations. A caller during that talk show appearance thanks Chuck for killing her father on national television. After all, it allowed him to go out entertaining millions rather than alone in a dank room. His death got to be one of personality rather than procedure.

And early in the film a woman sleeps with Chuck in the hope of convincing him to let her incarcerated boyfriend on the show. If he wins, he’ll go free, and if he loses, maybe she’ll get a parting gift. Either way, everybody wins…and her boyfriend was going to die anyway…

But, of course, it’s public execution, beamed directly into America’s living rooms. It’s not something that makes everybody happy. Protesters hound him at work, for instance, and the frequency of abuse he endures on the road caused him to have this installed:

His most vocal critic is Gloria Sternvirgin, a stand-in for real-world feminist activist Gloria Steinem, played by Robyn Blythe. She represents WAAMAF: Women Against Anything Men Are For, which is a joke that feels orphaned from a Married…With Children script.

Blythe’s performance is the one thing that helps the character feel like less of an unfair jab at feminism than she probably actually is. Chuck and host Roy Montague both call her a bitch at various points, and she’s without question meant to register at first as a ridiculous killjoy, the sort of character we may logically and ethically agree with, but who we can’t stand.

Blythe plays her straight, though, and she’s perhaps the only character that gets to be human and never becomes a cartoon. This may sound like an insult to the other characters, but I assure you it’s only a distinction. Deathrow Gameshow knows exactly what it’s doing, and any shifts in character and tone are done knowingly, if not always expertly.

She holds her own against Chuck and, ultimately, it’s Chuck who comes around, not Gloria. The fact that Deathrow Gameshow aligns itself with her perspective by the end rather than his does quite a bit to declaw the swipes at her character, as does the fact that she and Chuck soon come to share an adversary.

That adversary is Luigi Pappalardo — played by a man with the fantastic mononym Beano — who is seeking vengeance, or at least restitution, for Chuck’s killing of a crime boss, which we see in a flashback that perfectly encompasses everything that makes Deathrow Gameshow work.

We learn that the crime boss, whose name is Spumoni, indeed died on Chuck’s show, but Chuck had no idea who he was. The fact that contestants are only referred to by their prison identification number and never by name is a nice wink toward their dehumanization at the same time it serves as a plot point. (Or, actually, two plot points.)

The crime boss has found himself in this show’s equivalent of a physical challenge. He’s stripped naked and rigged up to a machine that will electrocute him if he gets an erection. To win, all he has to do is make it through Chuck’s lovely assistant’s Dance of the Seven Boners.

It’s plot, backstory, riff on the film’s central premise, and juvenile joke all at once.

Of course, when Spumoni dies, it isn’t truly Chuck’s fault, right? He was condemned to death already, and all Chuck did was host a game show. Perhaps Luigi would be upset, and perhaps he’d still seek vengeance, but it’s hard to hold Chuck too accountable for what’s bound to happen…

Except that it doesn’t happen. Spumoni makes it all the way through the performance, and we get the sense that he only barely manages to do so. Spumoni gets to go free.

Chuck, however, places a chummy hand on Spumoni’s shoulder, and the stimulation of physical contact is too much. He fries anyway.

His death was accidental, but it was Chuck’s accident. As a result, our hero has spent the past six months as the target of various threats and attempts on his life. One of these comes immediately after his talk show appearance with Gloria, and he whisks her away from harm. (Don’t worry, though; he won’t be a sympathetic character for at least another hour.) Unfortunately, the fact that she’s seen fleeing with him puts her in Luigi’s crosshairs as well.

At various points throughout the film, Pirro drifts firmly into sketch comedy territory, which surprised and disoriented me on my first viewing. I expected dark humor for sure, but I didn’t expect silly, isolated skits that had nearly nothing to do with the film I was watching.

One of these comes during the first round we see of Live or Die. A convict has his head in a guillotine, and if he wants to take it out again he has to identify the famous film he’s shown on the monitor.

We get to watch it with him. A figure wrapped in bandages lunges at a screaming woman, who gets away. The monster lets loose a humorously long string of frustrated profanity.

Recognize the movie? The prisoner didn’t, either. Chuck lets us know the film is called Curses of the Mummy.

A bit later, Pirro shows us slow-motion footage of kids crossing the street, which we cut to several times.

Why? Because Pirro is saving the reveal of the SLOW CHILDREN sign for the very end of the sequence.

The silliness of the jokes works, though. I wanted Pirro to view the horrors he created through a dark lens, but he insisted on seeing them in a fun-house mirror. Once my vision adjusted, I could appreciate the movie for what it actually was. Deathrow Gameshow is frequently dumb, but never stupid.

The best of the dopey gags, though, are the ones that flesh out the media landscape of Pirro’s world.

I’m referring to the television commercials that also take advantage of death row inmates. In one, a horrified mother can’t tell whether the desperate cries of her son being executed are genuine, or the remarkably clear audio quality offered by Glamorex cassette tapes.

In another, a criminal is given two cheese samples and asked to identify which is real and which is imitation. Unfortunately, the commercial is actually for Rodento cheese-flavored rat poison.

Scenes like this certainly make the world seem less real, but they also make it feel more cohesive. Once criminals sentenced to death are turned into entertainment, why not advertise with them, too?

Spumoni is actually the only criminal we see who expresses a desire not to be part of the show. (He did sign a release, though.) The others jump up and down with excitement as they await their turn, engage in banter with Chuck, and enjoy the thrill of the proceedings. (If not their termination point.)

In fact, in one of the film’s best jokes, Luigi takes over the show and releases the prisoners…who then sit down to watch the show themselves. From victim to audience in a literal heartbeat.

Families of the condemned even turn up to watch the prisoners compete live, hoping their loved ones either cheat death or leave them with some prize money as a consolation. In a great, unspoken moment, a contestant’s wife covers her daughter’s eyes but not her son’s.

Then, of course, there’s an angry viewer who accosts Chuck in public. He accuses Chuck of being a despicable human being doing unforgivable things, but we get the sense he never misses an episode. “I’ve been watching your show for two years,” he shouts, “and I think it’s sick!”

Chuck even launches into a “we give the people what they want” speech during his talk show appearance, which coincidentally sounds damned similar to the one Killian delivers at the end of The Running Man.

Deathrow Gameshow understands exactly why a show like Live or Die could succeed. Enough of the people who watch it enjoy it, and those who don’t still can’t pull themselves away. There’s something innately seductive about death, and watching those condemned to it trying to conquer it…well, of course they should cancel that show. But did you see it last night? It was wild…

Chuck offers Luigi a bribe to leave him alone, but the cartoonishly Italian assassin isn’t willing to be paid off. At least, not with money.

Mama Pappalardo happens to be a big fan of Make a Big Deal, another game show that films at the same time as Live or Die. You know exactly where this is going, and Deathrow Gameshow knows you know exactly where this is going, which allows the film to play with its own inevitability.

It does so, and it’s incredible.

Luigi suggests that if Mama Pappalardo can be in the audience for Make a Big Deal, maybe he can forget about that whole unfortunate dead crime boss thing.

Chuck doesn’t have control over Make a Big Deal, but through his secretary he manages to get Mama Pappalardo invited to the show. She even escorts the old woman to the Make a Big Deal studio personally while Chuck and Luigi set the world to rights.

And, of course, Make a Big Deal‘s audience shows up in costume, just like our real-world Let’s Make a Deal. Mama Pappalardo shows up dressed as a prisoner from Alcatraz.

Again, you know exactly where this is going…

Things should be fine; the two game shows film in entirely different studios, after all.

Mama Pappalardo has to use the restroom, however, so she gets out of line.

When she’s done she can’t find her way back, and a helpful young stagehand guides her onto the set of Live or Die.

The methodical plod through these circumstances is tremendously fun to watch unfold. Pirro just needs to get Chuck to throw a lever or something and kill an old woman, but the fact that we establish an entirely different game show with its own, very specific, fan base to get us there is great. Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t have many surprises to offer; it’s just fun to watch it play with its toys.

Of course, none of this would be an issue, except that Chuck didn’t get to see Mama Pappalardo before she headed off to Make a Big Deal. And Luigi hates Chuck’s show and doesn’t want to watch it. And he drags Gloria along to the Italian restaurant across the street, so he doesn’t join his mother at the other game show, either.

Mama Pappalardo appears on Live or Die, as she must. She’s the only one to buzz in to answer the trivia question, and she gets it right. As she must. Chuck rewards her with a physical challenge. As he must.

And if there’s any doubt about the film’s willingness to play with inevitability — to never undercut expectations but rather to drag them out lovingly — this sequence lays them to rest.

It’s not enough to know Mama Pappalardo is not long for this world; we need to see an old woman holding two canisters of gasoline, hopping weakly through rings of fire.

As she gets near the end of the sequence of flaming rings, Chuck’s lovely assistant blows flames that nearly singe the old lady. She’s not trying to complicate things…she’s just kind of a ditz.

Mama Pappalardo doesn’t explode. She does what no other contestant has done in our presence: she survives. She sets the canisters down next to some candles and celebrates, thinking she’s won Make a Big Deal.

The table collapses. The gasoline ignites. Mama Pappalardo is sprayed all over the studio backlot.

There’s nothing artful about it. Nothing clever. A doddering old lady explodes. But Pirro treats it with the appropriate gravitas: none whatsoever.

I absolutely love Mama Pappalardo. In fitting with the overall tone of the movie, it feels like she stepped right out of a Monty Python skit. In fact, she’s even played by a man in drag: Mark Lasky, who also plays Spumoni.

She’s never fully present in any of scenes, consistently confused and distant. She likely doesn’t know or understand how her son earns his money, and she certainly doesn’t know or understand anything else that’s going on around her.

Her goofy enthusiasm for leaping through the burning hoops is one of the film’s biggest and best laughs, as she finally comes to life in exactly the wrong situation. Nothing we observe or know about Mama Pappalardo suggests that she deserves her fate, which is what makes her explosive exit from the film such a giddy delight.

We know it’s coming, the movie knows we know it’s coming, and then it gives us exactly what we tuned in to see. Deathrow Gameshow is operating on the very same wavelength as Live or Die, and it’s getting the same reactions from its audience as well.

After the show, Chuck learns who he killed and is mortified. He immediately launches a plan to edit her death out of the episode and hide the truth from Luigi, which leads directly to Luigi seeing the footage himself.

The acting in Deathrow Gameshow is no better than we got from Arnold in The Running Man, but it’s far more appropriate to the film. Arnold seemed to be acting in an entirely different movie, operating on a plane of mental existence that wasn’t shared by any of his costars.

Here, none of the actors were in any danger of winning awards for their roles, but they all understood what they were doing, and that makes it work so much better.

They’re ridiculous people in ridiculous situations, saying and doing ridiculous things…but it makes the film feel more real than The Running Man felt, because everything is actually working together rather than the film being at odds with itself. Knowing you’re ridiculous allows you to establish a consistent identity. Not knowing you’re ridiculous leaves you flailing.

In addition to the main characters we’ve already discussed, there are two more worth noting.

The simplest and most successful is Debra Lamb as Chuck’s lovely assistant Shanna Shallow. Like much of the dedicated eye candy on game shows — Vanna White most notably — Shanna doesn’t get anything to say. Not just on Live or Die, but in the larger film itself.

She’s just a presence, and an increasingly bizarre one as we learn that she’s still speechless when the cameras are off, always staring blankly into the middle distance as though she’s been genetically engineered to be the perfect lovely assistant. This isn’t her job…it’s her existence.

Shanna barely even reacts toward the end of the film when Luigi takes over the show and forces the crew into a large cage on set. While they’re all trapped inside, Shanna postures and poses, introducing some imaginary Brand New Car on her right.

It’s funny and well played. Slightly less successful is Darwyn Carson as Chuck’s secretary, Trudy.

I actually feel bad saying so because Carson had far more to do than Lamb, and I don’t think she did a poor job. I think it’s more the case that she’s less defined as a character.

Trudy works best as an unintentional foil for Chuck. We only get a few scenes of the two of them interacting in this way, but it’s some of the best stuff in movie.

CHUCK: Any messages, Trudy?
TRUDY: Yes sir, Mr. Toedan, two I believe. A lady called asking for Lisa Whitman.
CHUCK: Who’s Lisa Whitman?
TRUDY: I don’t know, sir.
CHUCK: Well, what happened then?
TRUDY: She apologized and then hung up.
CHUCK: Trudy?
TRUDY: Yes, sir?
CHUCK: Isn’t it possible that this could have been a wrong number?
TRUDY: No, sir! It rang right here.
CHUCK: What about the other call?
TRUDY: Other call?
CHUCK: You said there were two calls.
TRUDY: Oh, yeah. A lady called asking for Lisa Whitman.
CHUCK: You told me that already.
TRUDY: She must have called back.

It’s corny, sure, and it’s the kind of comedy routine that we’ve seen thousands of times across all media, but it works. It’s funny. It’s the type of exchange that’s fun to write, act out, and watch. It plays well here, and is a welcome drift into a more familiar kind of insanity.

There’s also a great, unacknowledged visual gag involving the various notes Chuck leaves Trudy to clean up her work area…which accumulate so quickly they become their own kind of clutter.

All of this is good, but I get the sense that Deathrow Gameshow only intermittently knows what it wants to do with her. Another running gag, and a far less successful one, involves her secretly masturbating at work. I suppose there’s a way to make that funny or interesting, but Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t manage it.

In a way, that’s fine. In a screwball, wackadoo comedy like this, not every joke needs to (or can be reasonably expected to) land. It’s disappointing, though, because Deathrow Gameshow has stumbled on to several other ways to make Trudy funny, and this feels like a holdover from an earlier version of the script that couldn’t think of anything else for her to do.

I don’t mean to oversell Deathrow Gameshow. It’s not going to change anybody’s life or offer them compelling insight into difficult questions. It is, as they say, just a movie.

But it’s a movie that works. It’s a movie that achieves its own goals. They aren’t lofty goals, but they’re worth shooting for. They give us a movie that’s memorable, a movie with personality, a movie with a lot of great laughs and a few strong digs at the actual media we know, love, and follow.

It’s a cheap movie, but it uses its budget wisely. Setting the vast majority of the action on a game show set is a wise way to keep costs down; just like a real game show, most of it is static and props can be wheeled in or out to suit the changing needs of the scenes.

Pirro claims on his website that the film was produced for $200,000, which I certainly believe. But it went on to make $1.5 million in home video and cable revenue. (I suspect this will grow with the recent rerelease by the fantastic film restoration company Vinegar Syndrome.)

That sounds like a paltry sum, and for a major Hollywood movie it certainly would be. But for a winking labor of love like Deathrow Gameshow, that’s damned impressive. I don’t think the film is due for a universal reappraisal or anything, and whatever level of cult appreciation it holds today is unlikely to increase significantly in the future, but it’s a movie I really enjoyed. It will stick with me as an example of having as much fun as possible with a concept, and then shaking it off completely before it gets stale.

Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor does it underdeliver. When I told a friend I was reviewing this movie, she asked, “Does it actually have a death row game show?”

It’s the same question anyone should ask if they grew up renting horror movies, making decisions based on title and box art, feeling disappointed when the movie that looked like it should have been awesome offered barely a glimpse of the concept that hooked you.

Deathrow Gameshow delivers what it promises. It doesn’t attempt to trick its audience or even surprise them. You get exactly what you asked for. No more, no less. But in the horror genre, which so frequently fails to live up to its own hype, “no more, no less” can actually mean “significantly more than we should reasonably expect.”

I was disappointed the first time I started watching the film, because I wanted something that would disturb me, upset me, fire me up against the media, against the entertainment industry’s dubious sense of ethics, against the way we view and treat prisoners in this country…

But I got a carefree farce instead. Once I realized it wasn’t the movie I hoped it would be, I was free to enjoy the movie it actually was.

You don’t watch Deathrow Gameshow because you want to see what happens, or because you care about the characters. You watch it because it enjoys itself, and however corny or telegraphed the jokes might be, you end up falling into its spell.

Paul Michael Glaser spent $30 million to make a movie about convicts fighting for their lives on a popular gameshow. Mark Pirro spent $200,000 to make a far superior one. History may not remember Deathrow Gameshow, but I certainly and happily will.

Fiction into Film: The Running Man (1982 / 1987)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

I grew up reading Stephen King. Many of you surely did as well. I’d blitz through an entire novel in a weekend, or a night. Hundreds of pages flying by like a few dozen. I liked them without loving them. Many of you surely did as well.

King is a fascinating writer, if not an especially good one. He’s arguably the ultimate publishing success story. He’s prolific, he’s rich, he has studios scrambling for the rights to his work before he’s even started writing it. Other writers either admire him or are jealous of him. I’m not sure there’s anything in between.

He fascinates me for two related reasons. Firstly, he’s an unstoppable fount of incredible, fertile, resonant ideas. A rabid dog attacks people trapped in their car. An alcoholic in the throes of cabin fever becomes a danger to his family. A mentally unsound fan holds her favorite author captive. These are writing prompts that could spawn thousands of works of fiction, and any one of them could be great. King turned each of these and so many more into enduring favorites. That’s amazing.

Secondly, though, he doesn’t seem to know what’s good about his own work.

This is remarkable to me. I find it difficult to accept the fact that somebody could be so successful an artist for so long and not understand his own strengths and weaknesses, but here we are. And so great moments are buried within meandering, tedious, clumsy passages. Fantastic characters jostle for space with unnecessary, functionless ones. Surprising flashes of human insight are diluted by clunky dialogue (often written in poorly considered dialect) that even when he was young seemed to have been written by an old man with an understanding of young people that was at least 20 years out of date.

The most visible example of this is his reaction to 1980’s The Shining. King was unquestionably blessed to have his not-all-that-great novel turned into what is arguably the finest horror film ever made. By Stanley Kubrick, one of the finest director’s we’ve ever had. Starring Jack Nicholson, one of the finest actors who’s ever lived.

Writers would sell their soul for an adaptation like that…one which improves upon the source material and enhances its legacy. But King felt ill-served by it and believed that it did his novel an injustice. In 1997, 20 years after the publication of The Shining, King got the chance to prove to his fans that Kubrick had gypped them.

He made his own adaptation of the book, a three-part miniseries, a six-hour epic directed by Mick Garris, whose Critters 2 and Psycho IV credentials evidently impressed him in a way that Kubrick’s filmography did not. And King absolutely made sure to set his version of the film apart from Kubrick’s in one key way: it was fucking terrible.

The arresting, immortal, chilling imagery Kubrick brought to The Shining left King cold, apparently, because it didn’t have poorly rendered topiary monsters and a cameo from King himself conducting an orchestra of ghouls. All King ended up proving was that he was the last person who should be given the final word on his own adaptations. He produces good material, but a smart director will trim an awful lot to find it, and rework even more to elevate it.

All of this is to recognize that King’s been largely served by solid adaptations. Not uniformly, no, but they tend to find the germ of King’s idea and present it in a way superior to the original, clumsy text.

I first read The Running Man in my late teens, and I learned there was already a film version soon after that. I tracked down a copy and rented it, looking forward to what I knew had the potential to be a great film.

It wasn’t.

Oh my Lord was it not.

King’s The Running Man was published under the name Richard Bachman, his pseudonym for a brief period. During that time King wrote one of his best novels (The Long Walk) and several of his worst.

The Running Man was…okay. It might be the only Bachman book that I’d position between those two extremes. Even as a teenager who shouldn’t have known better, I could tell it wasn’t living up to its own potential. I found it difficult to put down, don’t get me wrong, but it was a potboiler. An effective one, for sure, but also one that relied on moving the reader along quickly so that he or she wouldn’t have enough time to realize the novel wasn’t very good.

Its central concept, though, was great, and a half-decent adaptation could do a lot with it.

A half-decent adaptation was miles away from what we actually got.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as King’s hero, Ben Richards, but the connection between the two incarnations of the character doesn’t run much deeper than the name. The novel version is a desperate, unemployed everyman with a dying infant daughter who volunteers to participate in a game that will see him hunted and almost certainly killed, because every hour he survives means more money for his family.

The film version, by contrast, is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We’ll get into the massive differences in the two versions of the story shortly, but, right now, I will say I understand the temptation — on the part of the director, the studio, the marketing team — to eschew the original plot entirely once they realized they had Schwarzenegger, reshaping it as a mindless, self-contained action spectacle.

At this stage in his career, Schwarzenegger had starred in two Conan movies, Commando, and The Terminator. Predator was released the same year as The Running Man. Schwarzenegger was fast becoming a star, and he was becoming a star for very specific things. To plug him into a movie in which he didn’t get to do those very specific things was to invite commercial failure.

The changes to the source material are severe to the point of almost complete detachment. Instead of a gripping story of a man surviving — barely — by his wiles as a team of skilled hunters pursues him relentlessly, we get Schwarzenegger working his way through an uninspired video game boss rush. The question King posits is something along the lines of, “How far can a man push himself when his family’s future is on the line?” Director Paul Michael Glaser’s question is more like, “Can the guy famous for beating people up beat some people up?”

It’s tempting to say that Schwarzenegger is miscast, and had anything beyond the title survived the process of adaptation that would certainly be the case. But the film version of The Running Man fails to do anything noteworthy with its star anyway. It was reimagined as something else that didn’t work.

Both versions of the story take place in a dystopian vision of the future. The novel puts the year at 2025, and the film rolls it back for no real reason to 2019. At the center of each is a television program called The Running Man, which is the most popular show on the planet.

That’s about where the overlap ends, and even though the Running Man TV show exists in both realities, they’re completely different.

King’s version is just one of many shows produced by the Games Network, a government-sanctioned entertainment outlet that puts voluntary contestants in dangerous situations for potential profit. King alludes to similar TV shows such as Run for Your Guns, Dig Your Grave, Swim the Crocodiles and How Hot Can You Take It, but the biggest payout is earned through The Running Man.

The Running Man is a game show, but isn’t quite presented like one. It takes the form of a nationwide manhunt, with the contestants trying to stay ahead of a group of mercenaries known as the Hunters, led by a man named Evan McCone.

The contestant’s family is given an advance, and the contestant himself gets a 12-hour head start. He can go wherever he likes and do whatever he likes, and every hour he survives nets his family 100 New Bucks (because this is The Future), but the Hunters are always in pursuit and will kill him if they find him. Viewers can play along at home by sending tips to the Network if they see the contestant, earning them some money as well. The contestant earns bonuses for every agent of law enforcement he takes out, and surviving a full 30 days means he wins and goes home with the grand prize of one billion New Bucks.

Two complications arise. First, for the contestant: nobody has ever survived anywhere near 30 days. Ben Richards knows this, though, and hopes only to survive long enough to leave his wife and daughter secure financially.

Second, for the reader: how the hell do you do a show where everyone involved is hidden somewhere? King…doesn’t quite know how to answer that. He outlines a rule requiring the contestant to send the Network two videotaped messages every day, which are then used as part of the episode that night. If the contestant fails to do so, they forfeit their winnings and are still hunted.

It’s difficult to imagine millions of people tuning in each night to see some prerecorded video of a man in a hotel room saying, “Yes, hello, I am still running for my life,” let alone the bloodthirsty, howling studio audience King describes. The episode in which that man is caught and gunned down, yes. But the umpteenth episode in which nothing happens and nobody’s around aside from the host? No.

There is one tantalizingly unanswered question this raises, though. Richards is promised that the Hunters will not be given access to any information obtained from the postmarks on the recordings he mails in, but the ease with which they find him (and everybody) makes it easy to believe this is a lie, and the game is indeed fixed. To King’s credit, he either chose not to resolve this definitively or forgot to. Either way, it’s nice that we don’t know. The Hunters are either just that good at their jobs, or they hang around waiting for the Network to tell them exactly where the contestant is hiding. (Or, at least, the zip code.)

Glaser’s version of The Running Man does at least operate the way we’d expect a game show to operate; that is to say, the audience can actually see what the hell is happening.

Here, The Running Man is a live broadcast in which convicted criminals (not volunteers) are loaded into shuttles and launched into a Game Zone — a walled-off, disused area of the city — below the studio. It’s still very large (400 square blocks, which seems like an odd unit of measurement when blocks are longer than they are wide but there you go), but it’s still, essentially, an enclosed combat arena.

The audience watches a video feed of the contestants squaring off against the Stalkers, who are gimmicky, themed athletes, something like a cross between WWF wrestlers and American Gladiators. The contestants don’t earn money, but if they survive for three hours they win their freedom.

That obviously works better as a television show than King’s version does, so it clears that rather significant hurdle, but this also leads to its own problems.

For instance, it’s never clear how often the contestants are in view of a camera. If they’re constantly being filmed, the Stalkers wouldn’t have to hunt them out and there would be no game. But for the audience to reliably see the fights unfold, there would have to be nowhere for them to hide from the cameras.

Of course, the answer should be that there is nowhere for them to hide from the cameras, and the “hunting” of the contestants is only dramatic flair. Should be. But there’s an unnecessary subplot about the contestants (four in total) tracking down and jamming “the uplink to the satellite,” essentially preventing the Network from broadcasting. If anyone saw them do that, all pretense about the contestants being able to hide would be dropped immediately and the Stalkers sent to kill them at once. Instead, the contestants are allowed to fiddle with it at their leisure, so I guess they really are able to hide.

Also, forgive me for asking because I know this is totally out of line, but…why, exactly, is the satellite uplink located within the Game Zone? Even if they never expected contestants to be able to hack it or sabotage it, isn’t the mere fact that massive gladiators with chainsaw motorcycles would be engaging in active combat around it a bit worrying? Shouldn’t the uplink be located…I don’t know…literally anywhere else on Earth?

At one point it’s revealed that the resistance group that we meet early in the film have a hideout that’s also within the Game Zone. How do they get in? How have they not been spotted? I guess they could have tunneled in from the outside, but the fact that they’re still alive and Richards and his buddies can meet up with them proves that the Network needs to do a much better job of paying attention to what, exactly, is in their own damned Game Zone.

These things feel like holdovers from a version of the script truer to King’s tale. If Schwarzenegger were indeed fleeing the Stalkers openly across America, he could certainly stumble upon uplinks and resistance camps and anything else Glaser would like him to find. But for him to stumble upon these things in what is essentially the show’s own studio is a profoundly idiotic contrivance.

There’s also the odd fact that the Stalkers seem to have their own dedicated entrances in the Game Zone, reflecting their gimmick and, I suppose, providing a bit of visual drama to their introduction. Which is fine. But since they don’t seem to show up until the contestants are exactly there, it should be pretty easy to survive just by keeping away from the elaborately lit entrances, no?

Also notable is the fact that Schwarzenegger is actually on the run early in the film, but is captured and brought to The Running Man‘s set. In King’s version, Richards starts on a sound stage and runs. In Glaser’s, Richards runs and then comes to a sound stage. One is clearly a less thrilling progression than the other, and it leads to the bizarre realization that in a film called The Running Man, the man was stopped from running so he could hide instead.

While the film was in production, Glaser was brought in to replace the original director, Andrew Davis, who had fallen behind schedule. I know nothing about what creative differences we’d find between the two versions of the film, but I almost get the sense that some of these things were holdovers from an earlier version of the script that actually did more clearly reflect King’s original.

This is seemingly supported by the fact that the version of The Running Man we did get feels like two different films badly stitched together. One of them is a mindless action movie in which Schwarzenegger beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then the credits roll, and the other is a social satire. “Game show in which you fight for your life” is a concept that can certainly go in either direction, but this film wants it to go in both. One isn’t interesting, and the other isn’t given enough space to be interesting.

The social satire just barely surfaces at various points throughout the movie. Early on we catch a glimpse of a television show in which a man climbs a rope while vicious dogs leap up at him, bite at his legs, and eventually pull him down to his presumed grisly death. Words appear on the screen: “Climbing for Dollars will be right back!”

It’s funny. It’s also funny when a man meets with the captured Richards before the show and introduces himself by saying, “I’m your court-appointed theatrical agent.” As is the show’s announcer saying that members of the studio audience receive “procreation pills, both adult and kiddie sizes, and the latest edition of The Running Man home game.”

These are lines and details from a much better version of the movie, one that leans into the ridiculousness of the premise while still making its point. But they’re also rarities, moments of fleeting invention bowled over and smothered by brainless, uninteresting action set pieces designed to say precisely nothing.

The connective tissue between these two competing versions of The Running Man also, perhaps miraculously, is the film’s lone highlight: Richard Dawson.

Dawson plays Damon Killian, the host of The Running Man, with the oily charm and swagger only a man with decades of experience in the industry could bring to the role. He is eager to have fun with his own image and ends up being the most entertaining thing in the film by a country mile. In short, he knows how to work his audience…both his fictional one and his real one.

Again, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I have to imagine Dawson brought his own ideas to the character. If that’s not the case, then he was written far, far better than any other character was, and I doubt that very much. More likely there were words on a page, and Dawson, the old pro, embellished them, enhanced them, gave them a life that wasn’t there.

Even as a teenager watching this film for the first time, I could tell Dawson was operating on a level well above the rest of the material. He was believable…an actual character among the caricatures.

I recognized him from Family Feud, of which he was the original host. (He came back to host it again in the 1990s.) Prior to that he served as a regular panelist on The Match Game, which I used to watch in reruns. My friends and I even singled him out as the reliably intelligent one; contestants who did not agree with Dawson’s answers sure seemed to pay the price.

In The Running Man, Dawson embodies his own legend, and the film is infinitely richer for it. He gladhands and compliments and makes people feel important before firing them behind their backs. He’s a cold, evil man who becomes warm and lovable the moment the cameras turn on. He hawks Cadre Cola at the same time he gives the impression he wouldn’t be caught dead drinking that shit. He even brings his habit of kissing old ladies on Family Feud into these darker environs. “The love of my life, my number one fan, Mrs. McArdle!” he says. “I want a kiss now, a big kiss, but remember, no tongues.”

Lives are at stake. Blood will be shed. People will die. And Dawson is all smiles and cheese.

It’s wonderful, and it feels like Dawson knowingly undercutting his own legacy. Since he plays the on-camera version of Killian so much like the game show host he actually once was, he’s inviting the public to question how different he might be when the cameras are off. Was he secretly villainous? I truly doubt it, but the man sure enjoys playing with the possibility.

Dawson fits into the both the social satire version of the film and the action movie that needs an entertaining villain. He’s the one and only aspect of The Running Man that succeeds, and that’s entirely down to Dawson himself.

There’s even a great moment that was nearly a terrible one, redeemed, of course, by Dawson. When Schwarzenegger is about to be sent to the Game Zone, the Austrian superstar says, “I’ll be back,” a nod to his already immortal catchphrase from The Terminator, only three years old at this point.

It’s jarring. We’re watching a crappy movie that has gone out of its way to remind us of a far better one. And though Dawson’s reply was certainly in the script, it’s fitting that he, the movie’s bright spot, was the one to deliver it.

He leans in to Schwarzenegger and says, “Only in a rerun.”

Everything about Dawson here is great, and I’d wager Killian’s signature mannerism — pointing with his fingers in a “devil horns” arrangement — was brought to this film by the actor himself. If I’m wrong and that was actually in the script, it’s the cleverest piece of business the script gave any actor by a landslide.

If The Running Man were a better film, I think Dawson’s performance would be remembered among the all-time great corny villains. Instead, it’s wasted on this, an oddly complicated framework for Schwarzenegger to dispatch some meatheads and spout one-liners.

Damon Killian is a composite character of several in the book. He’s assistant director of games Arthur M. Burns, director Fred Victor, host Bobby Thompson, and obviously Games Network head honcho Dan Killian. Rolling all of these characters into one unified face of the network is a wise decision on the film’s part, especially since, in the book, Dan Killian is the one Richards singles out for abuse and eventual revenge, which seems a bit odd when the others were far more responsible for his ordeal.

It’s less odd — but far more problematic — when you realize that Richards fixates on Killian because of the color of his skin. The other Games Network representatives are white, and Killian is black. Like, black black. So black you just know he’s a bad guy. Here’s how King introduces him:

The man behind the desk was of middle height and very black. So black, in fact, that for a moment Richards was struck with unreality. He might have stepped out of a minstrel show.

Jesus Christ, Stephen.

In the book, Richards endures a number of personality, intelligence, and psychological tests before taking part in The Running Man, and he demonstrates — and we are conclusively told — that he harbors racist sentiments. Dan Killian is certainly not a sympathetic character, but it’s more than a little uncomfortable that his skin color is what turns him into a punching bag.

Richard Dawson is about as black as a daffodil, so, thankfully, his casting sidesteps that entire, unnecessary minefield.

While many characters are condensed into Damon Killian, though, the Hunters are expanded. The only one named — and the only one we really get to meet — in the book is Evan McCone, who organizes and manages the team. In the film, the Stalkers have distinct identities of their own.

Distinct, but not very good.

The Stalkers in this movie have gimmicks and nicknames that make them sound like G.I. Joe characters. Fireball. Dynamo. Buzzsaw. Captain Freedom. One of them, Subzero, even had a name that would be used in 1992’s Mortal Kombat, which reveals just how video-game-ready these characters actually are.

In King’s original, the Hunters were unseen presences, shadowy threats without distinct identities, because it was important that Richards couldn’t trust anybody. A hobo. A jogger. A street vendor. A policeman. Anybody could be a Hunter, and anybody could report him to a Hunter.

There’s a great scene of masterful paranoia that unfolds after Richards, under an assumed identity, takes refuge in a YMCA in Boston. With nothing else to do, he stares out the window…and the normal behavior of passersby gradually makes him feel less and less safe.

Richards noted with a numb, distant terror that a good many of the newspaper bums were idling along much more slowly. Their clothes and styles of walking seemed oddly familiar, as if they had been around a great many times before and Richards was just becoming aware of it — in the tentative, uneasy way you recognize the voices of the dead in dreams.

A man waiting for a bus. Two friends going into a restaurant. A beat cop in casual conversation. Knowing he’s in danger, Richards convinces himself that everything is dangerous. It’s well handled and effectively frightening, because once you start to suspect the benign, there’s no escape from the horrors of your own imagination.

It’s undercut by the fact that Richards is correct — the Hunters are indeed surrounding the building and about to ransack it — but that’s just further evidence of King writing well and not realizing it.

In the film, there’s no such paranoia. Schwarzenegger doesn’t have to worry about who might possibly be a Stalker…it’s probably that guy with the flame thrower screaming and throwing flames everywhere. Or it’s the guy covered in Lite-Brite pegs shooting electricity out of his hands. The novel version of Richards has to rely on his wits alone, and the film version just needs his brawn. It will always be remarkable to me that in the transition from page to screen, one type of character will become, in the blink of an eye, that same type’s polar opposite.

King’s version of Richards relies on a combination of desperate resourcefulness and dumb luck to escape his various predicaments. Glaser’s version beats things up and delivers ostensibly witty one-liners.

After killing the first Stalker, Schwarzenegger turns to the camera and says, “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero.” After chainsawing Buzzsaw, Schwarzenegger quips, “He had to split.” Fireball gets the luxury of two puns about his horrifying death; Schwarzenegger says, “How about a light?” before setting him on fire, and “What a hothead” immediately after.

All of this would be fine in any other interchangeable action movie, but probably not one in which Schwarzenegger is supposed to be playing a man framed for a violent crime he didn’t commit. I understand that the circumstances are very different, but if this version of Richards wants to convince the world he didn’t open fire on unarmed civilians, he probably shouldn’t take such obvious delight in murdering people by chainsawing through their genitals.

Yes, unlike the downtrodden Richards of the novel who has no other way of providing for his family, this version of Richards was some kind of cop. He’s given the order to kill a group of defenseless civilians and refuses, but his fellow officers overpower him and obey the order. (Exhibit G that Schwarzenegger was miscast: The film opens with a bunch of wimps beating him up.)

Some doctored footage is all it takes to make the world think that Richards chose to defy orders by killing the civilians, and his fellow officers tried to stop him.

It’s a bit strange, though, that a policeman in this police state doesn’t actually realize that he lives in a dystopia until this moment. We’re shown that the world (or at least America) has long fallen into this shitty situation where the poor are repressed and criminals are executed for our entertainment on live television, but Richards is shocked to receive orders to do something untoward.

“I said the crowd is unarmed!” he barks over the radio after being told to kill them. “There are lots of women and children down there!” Did Richards somehow decide to become a police officer, complete all his training, and begin his career in law enforcement without ever realizing that he was working for Big Brother? Richards is painted as an uncommonly moral human being in this cruel, inhumane future, but if that’s the case, why did he knowingly sign up for the Schutzstaffel?

A great piece of media that understands this and serves as a nice counterpoint is The Last of Us. At the very beginning of that game, a soldier gets the order to execute a little girl and her father who are attempting to flee the city. He has a short, nervous exchange over his radio to confirm that this is actually the order…that this is actually what they want to do. The game then pushes us 20 years into the future, and soldiers aren’t asking questions anymore. If they’re told to kill someone, they kill them, because it’s no longer an unfamiliar order. Confused reluctance only has a home at the very beginning of this process…not years deep into it.

Perhaps Richards joined up knowing that the police were corrupt, but intended to be one of the good guys and maybe effect change from within…but he can’t have been surprised to receive an order he disagreed with in that case. How did this conflict never come up before? How did Richards never even anticipate the conflict? He comes across looking far less like the One Pure Soul than he does like David Mitchell asking, “…are we the baddies?”

The movie is oddly filled with moments like this, in which people who live in this society seem to be surprised and confused by it, as though, you know, they weren’t adults who watched it get to this point and have lived in it for at least two years, based on the opening text.

In the novel, flawed as it is, King’s characters react more appropriately. Memories of a freer, better past have been more or less completely lost, with loose fragments of history passed around like parables among people who can no longer understand it. Otherwise, this is what the world is, this is what the characters have known, and they don’t question it any more than we in reality question our own societies. We don’t ask why someone on TV spins a wheel and solves word puzzles for money, and they don’t ask why someone signs up to flee a squad of hitmen across the country. They’ve become equivalent. At that point, King knows, people stop questioning it. That’s the real horror.

Glaser, by contrast, doesn’t seem to realize that none of this is new to these characters, and so they shouldn’t comment upon it and question it as though it is. It’s as though all of his main characters recently suffered severe head injuries.

Late in King’s novel, Richards forces himself into a vehicle with a woman named Amelia Williams. She’s something of a hostage who Richards does indeed use as leverage, but King wants us to remember that Richards doesn’t steal her away because he’s a bad person; he does it because he’s a desperate person.

A desperate person who bullies her, browbeats her, makes her cry, ogles her tits, and eventually causes her to be sucked out of a moving airplane, but absolutely not a bad person, and I can’t possibly see how you might mistake him for one.

In the film, we meet her equivalent much sooner. Here she’s Amber Mendez, and she’s played by María Conchita Alonso, who you may remember from every other movie from the 1980s that wasn’t worth seeing.

I mean no disrespect to Alonso as a person. From what I understand she, like Schwarzenegger, has a large number of great qualities to offer the world. Also like Schwarzenegger, acting was never one of them.

In the film, Richards is incarcerated for his crime of disobeying orders. He shoots his way out of prison, killing dozens of guards as he does so. (Murder is perfectly fine in Glaser’s version, except for the one very specific time that it isn’t.) Once he’s out he flees to his brother’s apartment and finds it occupied by Amber Mendez instead.

In this scene, Schwarzenegger and Alonso carry on a long exchange that makes it sound like they’re both still learning English from flashcards. It’s atrociously acted, even in comparison to the writing which was already pretty darn poor. But, of course, we know that our two leads were not hired for their ability to inhabit a character.

Schwarzenegger was hired because he was a bankable name at the box office. Alonso was hired because…

Yeah. The first we see of Amber is her return from work. As all of us do, she removes her shoes when she gets home. As only she does, she takes everything else off and puts on sexy lingerie to work out in.

Alonso is an attractive woman, and The Running Man makes clear that that’s all they wanted from her. As soon as we see her, the filmmakers rush her out of her clothes. When we see her later, they rush her into a low-cut, skin-tight onesie. Between those two points we hear other characters complimenting her ass.

Richards — introduced to us as the lone virtuous soul in this ruined world — breaks into her apartment and immediately ties the half-naked woman up and starts going through her things. It’s actually pretty uncomfortable to watch, as I’m pretty sure this is any single woman’s actual nightmare.

The film tries to play them like a sort of mismatched romantic comedy team, with their bickering only barely masking the sexual tension they feel that indeed is resolved when the film ends. Only Richards destroys her belongings, steals from her, kidnaps her, and threatens multiple times to murder her in cold blood. Oh, and we’re supposed to see Amber as the bad guy when she turns him in so she can escape. What a bitch, eh guys?

Of course, problematic handling of female characters is something of a King trademark, along with every black character’s dialogue being rendered so that it sounds like it’s been transcribed from Song of the South, so maybe this was just Glaser’s loving nod to the source material.

My favorite bit of offputting King horniness comes during one of Richards’ pre-show exams:

On the table was a sharpened G-A/IBM pencil and a pile of unlined paper. Cheap grade, Richards noted. Standing beside all this was a dazzling computer-age priestess, a tall, Junoesque blonde wearing iridescent short shorts which cleanly outlined the delta-shaped rise of her pudenda. Rough nipples poked perkily through a silk fishnet blouselet.

Lifehack: If you’re in a kinky relationship and need a safe word, try “pudenda.” Not only will your partner stop what they’re doing immediately, but they won’t even want to think about sex for a week.

This is the description, I remind you, of a test proctor. Not that it would be any less disgusting if he were describing a prostitute that a character were about to have sex with, but at least such a description might serve a purpose there. Here it’s just ogling.

Admittedly, Richards seems to believe she was sent in as some kind of test herself…a sexed up babe to distract him or confuse him or actually he didn’t think this through any better than King did so forget it.

If that is her role, though, it doesn’t make sense that she’d bristle and quickly turn emotional when he called her on it. And if it’s not, then Richards has no right to belittle her the way he does and make her feel like a cheap piece of meat.

“You go out and have a nice six-course meal with whoever you’re sleeping with this week and think about my kid dying of flu in a shitty three-room Development apartment,” he tells her, immediately after groping her in a way that she makes clear is unwelcome.

It would be nice to say that the racism and misogyny (among other issues) are built into Richards as character flaws, problematic traits with an actual artistic or narrative purpose. But they aren’t; this is just the way King writes. To read his work is to grit your teeth in unhappy anticipation of the next time he plunges you into an unnecessary, detailed description of somebody’s penis or vagina. And there is always a next time.

Amber’s role here is a bit different from Amelia’s in the novel. In the novel, Amelia was just pulled along for the ride. (Twice, because King let her go at one point and forgot he needed her for a later scene so he dragged her back into the fray.) In the film, Amber gets Richards arrested again, but notices that the news coverage of the event doesn’t match up to what she actually witnessed.

She begins snooping around the network and finds the original, unedited footage of the exchange between Richards and his superiors that opened the film. Boy, it’s a good thing that this evil corporation clearly marks the evidence that will bring it down and keeps it in an unlocked drawer in an unguarded room.

Well, it’s probably better than keeping your satellite uplink in the middle of Thunderdome, but still.

Amber has access to the network building because she’s employed by them; she works as a composer for their shows. The fact that any movie could introduce this detail and then somehow not show us her process for composing the incidental music for a game show in which contestants get torn apart by dogs is outrageous.

Again, though, Amber shouldn’t have to (or even be able to) discover the fact that the network lies. If she didn’t work there, sure. But because she does work there — and is there every day, and has access to rooms such as this — it can’t be a revelation. Just as Richards shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a mission that his superiors aren’t making the most ethical decisions, Amber shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a workday that her organization lies. Her organization’s business is lies. That’s what they do. That’s all they do. They mislead and misinform.

As an employee, she shouldn’t be unaware of that fact. If the network truly tried to hide from everyone who works there that they spread untruths, it would crumble immediately. One leak, however minor, would bring the entire thing down. Instead, an organization like this has to convince its employees that lying is the best thing for them to do. That it’s a small transgression in exchange for some greater good. That it’s better, for any reason, to lie to the people who turn to them for information.

Consider O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He knows The Party is lying to the people. He has to know that, because he’s employed by them. He doesn’t capture and torture and reprogram Winston because Winston was incorrect; he does it because he was correct, and O’Brien believed the lie was necessary.

If The Party attempted to hide from its own members what they were doing, we never would have had Nineteen Eighty-Four; The Party wouldn’t have survived long enough for there to be a story. Instead, it had to convince its members that wrong was right. The network in this film could learn a lot from Orwell.

Amber is caught and tossed into the Game Zone with Richards and two other runners. She does nothing, but much later in the film a Stalker tries to rape her, so I guess that’s nice. If only he would have first broken into her home and tied her to the furniture she might have ultimately warmed up to him.

When Richards strangles and kills Subzero (“He was a real pain in the neck”), much ado is made of the fact that a Stalker has died on the job. Evidently, this has never happened before. At least, that’s what we’re told.

But we know that two other contestants are said to have won The Running Man in the past. (This is in notable contrast to the novel, in which we are assured that nobody has ever won.) Of course, the freedom of those two winners is revealed to have been faked; they were executed behind the scenes instead. That’s fine, but how did those episodes play out for the viewers at home?

If those winners didn’t kill any of the Stalkers and also didn’t get killed themselves, I assume that means they just survived for three hours. So were those episodes just three-hour slapfights in which neither party fell over? It feels like a bizarre holdover from a different version of the script, as does Captain Freedom — Jesse “The Body” Ventura — being described as “undefeated.” Wouldn’t every Stalker be undefeated if none of them ever died in this bloodsport before tonight?

Eventually Schwarzenegger beats up enough people that the movie needs to end, so he makes his way onto the stage to confront Killian directly.

In a way, this is the climax of the novel as well. There, Richards hijacks a passenger plane and flies it into the massively tall headquarters of the Games Network, presumably killing everybody inside and huge numbers of innocent people all around it. “It rained fire twenty blocks away,” King assures us. He also assures us that good Ben Richards got to see a look of horror on Killian’s face through his office window as he gave him the finger and plowed the plane directly into him.

Richards died as he lived: disrespecting black people.

In the film, Schwarzenegger takes a more hands-on approach to dealing with Killian. And Killian gets a decent — though certainly not great — little speech to go out on.

“For Christ’s sake, Ben,” he says. “Don’t you understand? Americans love television. They ween their kids on it. Listen, they love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports, and violence. So what do we do? We give ’em what they want. We’re number one, Ben, that’s all that counts.”

Any credit I could give the movie for this speech is negated by the sheer stupidity of Killian delivering it to Richards over the chute that leads to the Game Zone, as a shuttle is actively loaded into it, making it impossible to focus on anything other than the remarkable clumsiness with which the film is setting up its conclusion.

Sure enough, Richards stuffs Killian in the shuttle and fires him down the tube.

Which…shouldn’t really be a big deal. The Stalkers are all dead, so can’t Killian just get out of the shuttle and work his way back up through the backstage areas?

Oh, I guess Richards somehow knew that this time — like no other time — the shuttle would hit a wall and explode, raining bits of Killian twenty blocks away.

The shuttle even does Richards the courtesy of crashing directly through a Cadre Cola billboard with Killian’s face on it so that Schwarzenegger can say, “Well, that hit the spot.”

In both versions of the ending, the everyman takes down the network and kills its figurehead. In the film, though, all sense of personal sacrifice is lost. One version of Richards dies along with everyone else responsible for running the Games Network. The other wanders off to fuck María Conchita Alonso.

The Running Man is a terrible film based on a pretty lousy book, and it’s disappointing for just how mindlessly it squanders its potential.

King’s idea was fine. Swap in some better characters and do the concept justice, or at least play into the ridiculousness a little bit more. For a movie with a wisecracking action hero, The Running Man is rarely any fun. When it is, it feels for a fleeting moment like you’re watching a different film entirely.

Had Glaser done more along the lines of the Climbing for Dollars commercial and Captain Freedom’s workout video, putting together a grander, funnier, more cynical pastiche of entertainment culture, employing the exact same superficial glitz and unapologetic appeals to the viewer’s base instincts that it’s satirizing, we could have gotten a pretty good film. It wouldn’t have been The Running Man, no, but what we got wasn’t The Running Man, either.

Honestly, I have to wonder why they bothered paying for the rights to The Running Man at all, if it was to share so little with its source material. The central game is completely different, with its own rules, presentation, and rewards. Change the name of the main character and the name of the game show and it would be impossible for anyone to sue for copyright infringement. Actually, you could probably even keep the main character’s name. With literally nothing else taken from the novel, “Ben Richards” is common enough that you could argue it’s coincidence.

Of course, the answer is that they licensed the rights to the novel because Stephen King’s name is worth something to moviegoers, but King successfully lobbied to have his name withheld from the film and its promotional materials.

Watching The Running Man is a strange experience after having read the novel, if only because it seems unnaturally driven to squander even more potential than King did. It’s not an especially fun movie and it’s by no stretch of the imagination a good one.

And as much as I love (and I do love) Richard Dawson’s performance, I can’t say it’s worth watching even for that.

Maybe he should have directed the movie. He’s certainly the only one who understood what it was about.

The Running Man
(1982, Stephen King [as Richard Bachman]; 1987, Paul Michael Glaser)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the story? Yes. It’s flawed but engaging.
Worth watching the film? No, with the notable exception of one great performance.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Not a chance.
Is it of merit in its own right? It gives the middle finger to and plows a plane right through merit.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Winner” (season 4, episode 10)

If you had asked me 10 weeks ago how excited I was to finally learn the story of how Gus dug a big hole, I would have been able to answer you very easily. But, as it has many times before, Better Call Saul found a story worth telling where I honestly would have guessed there couldn’t be any.

If season three revealed itself in its final moments to have been about Chuck, season four may have done the same thing with Mike. It’s not an easy trick to make an audience sympathize with the guy who pulls the trigger, but I was genuinely shaken up by where his story with Werner ended.

The other big thing that happened this week is that Jimmy got his license reinstated and immediately requested a DBA (doing business as) form, because he won’t be practicing as James McGill anymore. This is fine, and Jimmy’s bluff during the hearing fools even Kim (get out, Kim!), which was one of several very nice moments in his half of the episode…but it’s Mike’s that really resonated, it’s Mike’s that will echo like a gunshot in the night.

Werner was never a bad person, and Mike knew that. That’s why he stood up for him, time and again. That’s why he tried to help him. Tried to reassure him. Tried to encourage him to push through. Left to his own devices, Gus would have taken care of Werner weeks before it got to a crisis point, but Mike held him back. Mike knew Werner in a way Gus didn’t. Mike knew the guy wouldn’t be a problem.

And Werner made a fool of him. His escape last week sent Gus’ entire team on a manhunt. Even then — even as he has no choice but to hunt Werner down like an animal — Mike is trying to convince Gus not to eliminate the problem in the simplest way.

But, as Mike tells Werner late in the episode, it was never up to him.

The story of how Gus dug a big hole ended up being one of the most affecting and haunting things the show has done yet. Not because it introduced a disposable character and then disposed of him, but because of what the experience did to Mike.

Mike meets Werner and feels a degree of respect for him. Once he’s hired, Mike then treats him as a reliable partner. Somewhere down the line, Mike realizes he’s made a friend. They open up to each other. They like each other. And so when Werner, inch by inch, threatens to bring Gus’ operation crashing down, Mike makes allowances. He makes excuses. He tries to win Werner back over.

It doesn’t work. It can’t work. Mike thinks of everything. Mike knows better. But Mike wants so desperately for Werner to prove him right for believing in him that he blinds himself to the truth. Maybe we remember Kim’s relationship with Jimmy, and their own sunk costs…

It terminates in the cruelest damned scene imaginable, with Mike left to take his own friend’s life under the desert sky. It’s a very Lenny and George moment, right down to the fact that if Mike waits, someone else will come and do the deed for him. But Mike knows it’s better this way. Werner looks to the stars.

The entire scene is heartwrenching. Werner calls his wife and demands that she turn back, ensuring that the last thing she’ll ever remember him saying to her is that he doesn’t want to see her. Mike’s voice breaks as he tries to explain why there’s no other way this can end. Two men with a personal relationship know that it’s their professional relationship that will determine how this ends.

Perhaps this experience is what causes Mike to make the fatal decision to go easy on Walt in Breaking Bad. In this case, it wasn’t Mike’s decision to make. In that one, it was. He was never as close to Walt as he was to Werner, but I could understand him not wanting to pull that trigger a second time. The first time was plenty.

Mike breaks his own heart that night. Mike brings Werner to the abandoned raceway, Mike pulls the trigger, Mike carries the body back to the car. This is the life he has chosen for himself. This is a life in which you kill your friend the moment he can no longer be trusted. And, if you don’t, you pay for it yourself.

After that harrowing scene we cut to Gayle, whose giddy enthusiasm for the big hole Gus dug would normally be an episode highlight. Here, it’s all too easy to feel the weight Gus and Mike feel in the scene. They aren’t appreciative of his antics. I wasn’t, either. (And I mean that as a massive compliment to the writers.)

Even Jimmy being reinstated isn’t allowed to register as a triumph, because he hurts Kim with his phony emotions. We don’t get to believe anything will work out. Season four doesn’t let us. These characters are in their darkest corners yet, and they aren’t going to get out. They’re only going to retreat further.

Everybody has their place. Jimmy’s reminded of that this week, at a damned important crossroads in his life, when he lobbies for a young girl with a shoplifting record to get a scholarship. She’s turned her life around. She’s gotten good grades. She believes there’s something for her in the future. But when Jimmy mentions her name, all he hears in response is, “The shoplifter?”

You might not like the hole they cram you in, but you aren’t getting out, so you might as well make yourself comfortable.

Here’s hoping season five opens with Kim poking Jimmy in the eye and hopping in a cab back to Nebraska.

To everyone who followed these reviews this season, I hope you enjoyed. Thank you for reading.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Wiedersehen” (season 4, episode 9)

When this episode began and I saw Gennifer Hutchison as the credited writer and Vince Gilligan as director, I knew “Wiedersehen” was going to be good. And it was. But it was also an episode that I don’t think I can fully evaluate until I know where some things go. It’s like Jimmy speaking to his ex-client’s next of kin about her Hummel figurines in “Piñata.” We can read as much as we like into it, but it might be worth waiting to see what happens next.

There is at least one thing, though, that we need to get clear at this exact point, before we move any further.

In a heated conversation toward the end of the episode, Kim (completely in the right) lets Jimmy have it. Whenever he needs her, she drops everything for him. She bails his ass out left and right. Whatever mess he makes, she’s the first to pick up a broom and start cleaning it up.

But Jimmy doesn’t appreciate that. At least, not as much as or in the way that he should.

So Kim tells him something. She says, “Maybe next time you call, I won’t come.”

That should sound familiar. That needs to sound familiar. Because that’s exactly the position Jimmy occupied in relation to Chuck. And in season three’s “Sunk Costs,” Jimmy told Chuck the same thing. One day he’d need him…and Jimmy wouldn’t be there.

That day came at the end of season three. And Jimmy was not there.

In his relationship with Kim, Jimmy has taken on the Chuck role. He is now the needy McGill, turning again and again to the same person to keep him functional. Taking more advantage every time. Not appreciating what he has.

And, ultimately, driving that person away.

Is that how this ends? I don’t know. But “Wiedersehen” draws the parallel almost verbatim.

It matters whether or not Kim genuinely does leave Jimmy at his lowest point, when he needs her most. Of course it does. But it also matters that this relationship echoes that one right now.

That’s terrifying.

Elsewhere, another relationship sours as well. Mike and Werner were already on tenuous ground last week, and this week things seem both better and worse. Better because the work is progressing again and Werner and Mike are back to sharing details of their lives. Worse because Werner is breaking and doesn’t let Mike know just how bad it’s getting.

And then Werner is gone. Mike spots some dead pixels on the bank of surveillance monitors and quickly uncovers Werner’s great escape.

Mike’s ultimate (in a literal sense) tragedy is that he’s a softie. I mean, he’s Mike, yes, and his badassery isn’t a front. That is really who he is. But, at heart, he also wants to see the best in people. He knows better, but keeps letting his guard down. That’s why in Breaking Bad he’s able to give Walt a speech about never taking half-measures before later taking a half-measure with the man who would kill him in return.

And it’s why here he still treats Werner as a friend, still grants him extra telephone privileges, still reassures him and does him favors, just for Werner to stab him in the back.

Mike’s tragedy is that he still has a heart. It’s that in spite of how much time he spends with, around, and against scum, he still wants to believe in people. It’s that no matter how much he hardens himself against the world, he’s still willing to let someone in.

One definite development “Wiedersehen” gives us, though, is the start of what’s sure to be a satisfying face-off between Eduardo and Gus. I mentioned a few weeks ago that Gus seems to already be at his terminal point; he’s not much different here, if at all, from the character we met in Breaking Bad. So what, really, can Better Call Saul do with him?

Well, it can give him a new adversary specific to this show, and that’s what it’s done with Eduardo.

As I said last week, Eduardo is dangerous because he’s charming, he’s fun, he’s conversational. And, sure enough, as he thanked Gus for saving Hector’s life, I was willing to believe him. I knew better, and the opening scene between Eduardo and Hector all but spelled it out for us, but…Eduardo just seems so nice. He’s insincere, as Jimmy’s reinstatement committee might complain, but…well…maybe he really is willing to reach out in peace.

He’s not. Of course he’s not. But Eduardo leaves room for a maybe, whereas Tuco or Hector or any other Salamanca absolutely does not. Eduardo has people skills. He’s all smiles and compliments and flattery. Whatever eventual confrontation happens between him and Gus, we know Gus comes out of it alive. But we don’t know precisely what that confrontation looks like, and it’s impressive that Better Call Saul has found room to keep us guessing in what I thought was a tale fully told.

“Wiedersehen” mainly just moves us closer to the end of the season. It’s doing some busywork. That’s probably why they assigned this episode to one of their best writers and clearly their best director. It was an episode born of necessity, and they found the right people to elevate it. Or, perhaps, to string it up.

We’ll see what happens next week, when they finally swing the bat.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Coushatta” (season 4, episode 8)

My biggest concern with Better Call Saul — admittedly one that has not held it back from being great in its own right — is its willingness to dive clearly into Breaking Bad territory and stay there. Call it a turf war, if you like.

Breaking Bad was an immense and important piece of television that was — for almost impossibly long stretches — perfect. And Better Call Saul has an identity of its own. While it may share characters and flesh out some details that that other show introduced, this show has its own merit, its own personality, its own momentum.

And so it feels disappointing to me when Better Call Saul lets characters like Gus or Mike occupy so much screen time without telling us anything new about them. Characters like Jimmy, and until very recently Hector, don’t have this problem. They’re different incarnations of the characters from those we knew on Breaking Bad. We do learn new things about them, simply because we get to know who they used to be.

I’ve complained about it enough in previous reviews that I don’t need to get back into it here, and I’m only bringing it up because “Coushatta” is an episode that does great things with the cards unique to Better Call Saul‘s hand. In a show that is too often happy to sideline its own potential, we get an episode that shows us why these characters, and their particular stories, are worth spending time with.

There’s Mrs. Nguyen, the salon owner, who pours Jimmy a drink and gives him trite relationship advice that reveals her, beautifully, to be a character who thinks she’s in the sitcom Better Call Saul nearly was. There’s Jimmy’s commercial crew, in particular the girl who’s been taking an improv class, helping him to impersonate an entire small town in Louisiana. And there’s Werner, who…

Well, let’s give Werner a paragraph break.

I like this guy. I enjoyed Mike’s recruitment of a construction foreman in “Quite a Ride” well enough, but I didn’t expect to enjoy the new character we got out of the deal so much.

Werner is a calm, measured, gifted engineer who honestly seems to do a decent job of managing his crew while also treating them respectfully. Like Gayle — who will put the lab they’re building to eventual use — he comes across as a good person who has his own reasons for devoting his talents to the bad guys. (In this case it seems to be money.)

Perhaps most surprisingly, he gets along with Mike. Not just in the sense that they work together well, or they trust each other, but in the sense that they’re…friendly.

Of course, this is revealed to be a piñata that was strung up just so it could be smashed to pieces, but there haven’t been many moments sweeter than when Mike sees Werner sitting alone in a strip club and invites him to a nearby bar for a quiet drink.

Mike, for whatever reason, likes Werner. Perhaps he needs the companionship. I wouldn’t say that’s much in line with the Mike we know otherwise, but it’s possible. Regardless, the two share an unexpectedly personal conversation. Werner does most of the talking, which is not a surprise, but the fact that Mike opens up at all is deeply significant. He remains a man of few words, but he still confides that his father was a deadbeat.

And that lends, I think, even more tragedy to Matty’s death. Mike harbors no fondness for his father, and it’s probably safe to say that he promised himself he’d be a far better father than he ever had. It’s also safe to say that he was. And he still got his son killed.

It’s a nice moment between two characters we like and who also like each other. It’s…friendship.

Sadly there’s another character unique to this show who spoils the mood. Of course he does, right? It’s Kai. The guy Mike told his security crew to keep an eye on. The guy who’s been difficult from the very start. The guy who actually gets named, so that we know who he is when Mike inevitably has to kill him.

Good old Kai, who got too drunk and touched a stripper. Mike steps away from Werner to take care of the problem child and…well, the child isn’t much of a problem. Kai returns to the barracks to get some sleep. Mike bribes the bouncer to keep things quiet. Since we met the kid we’ve been waiting for the showdown between him and Mike, and this could have been it, right here. But it wasn’t. Kai, wisely, backs down.

Mike returns to the bar, and we find that Werner was the problem child after all.

Unreliable, unpredictable Kai really is just a kid. He’ll do and say stupid things and he’ll likely face punishment for it. But it’s reliable, predictable Werner who poses the far greater risk.

On the back of a beermat, Werner doodles some schematics and talks to two new American friends a bit too openly about the project he’s working on. It’s bad, and it only got that bad because Mike liked the guy. Mike let his personal feelings get in the way of his professional ones. Earlier in the bar, Werner teaches a young man to pronounce hefeweizen…and then buys him one. The exchange is conducted over Mike, who at any point could tell (and clearly considers telling) Werner to keep his damn mouth shut.

But he doesn’t. Werner is lonely. Mike knows it. Mike lets Werner engage in friendly chat with the outside world…precisely what he and Gus have invested so much time and energy into preventing from happening.

And now I expect that it will be Werner rather than Kai who has to be permanently silenced. The next morning as the construction crew is loaded into the van, Mike lets a grabassing Kai pass. The chicanery he got up to last night isn’t what’s important. What’s important is Werner’s foolish, drunken conversation with outsiders who are bound to remember it.

Gus even brings it up. That’s never a good sign. Mike promises that he has his eye on Werner. The piñata is ready when he is.

I honestly can’t say enough about how much I’ve liked this development. Kai (and the show) made it clear that he was a dangerous addition to the team. What’s more, Mike is the most reliable perspective we have in Better Call Saul. When he identifies something as a problem, he’s right.

And I’m sure he was right. I’m sure Kai is a pile of shit that shouldn’t be involved with this project and cannot possibly do more good than he will do harm. But while we were all focused on him, we took our eyes off of Werner. Why not? Mike trusted the guy enough. Of course we can, too.

It’s an incredible sleight of hand that’s both terrifying and impressive. Before this episode, my girlfriend said she was looking forward to Kai inevitably getting killed. That’s what we were led to anticipate. That’s why Kai existed. But knowing someone to be a problematic presence isn’t what leads to catastrophe. No…catastrophe comes when you overlook someone you thought was safe.

Then there’s the introduction of another new character that I’m already in love with: Eduardo.

Eduardo is fantastic. In one scene the smirking, sashaying chef lands as an entertaining and welcome presence in an increasingly bleak corner of the show. Throughout Breaking Bad and Nacho’s storyline here, we’ve spent a lot of time in the drug trade and met pretty much exclusively scary people.

And, well, rightly so. It’s a scary and deadly business. The Salamancas themselves have all been various shades of terrifying, from unpredictable Tuco to the immovable cousins to worst human being imaginable Hector.

Eduardo represents a different kind of character, and not one we’ve seen before. The one who will joke around with you and cook you a damned fine meal and treat you like royalty without ever letting you forget that you’re scum, you’re being watched, and you’re on borrowed time.

He’s disarming, in other words. If you meet a Tuco or a Hector, you’re on your guard. (If you meet the cousins, you’re already dead.) But if you meet Eduardo, well…he’s charming. He’s fun. He’s clearly dangerous, but mainly because you’re far more likely to let him in.

Better Call Saul has a habit of introducing cartoony supporting characters and either humanizing or ditching them as time passes. And while I’d love to say that Eduardo isn’t a cartoon, that would be a lie. But he’s a calculated cartoon. A specific, useful persona that has his place in the Salamanca empire. And while I never expected Tuco or Hector to pose any real danger to Nacho, that’s because Nacho was always — always — clearly the smarter party.

With Eduardo? I’m not quite as sure. Nacho knows how to deal with the standard Salamanca attitude. Eduardo is going to require a whole other approach, and that’s an exciting complication.

The weightiest moment of the episode definitely came at the end, when Kim might as well have announced, “I’d prefer not to make it out of this show alive.”

Throughout most of “Coushatta,” we saw Kim putting up (and Jimmy respecting) a wall between herself and her former partner. By the end of it, she admits to missing their schemes and scams. The leak in the balloon is repaired. It is now guaranteed to burst.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this when we see exactly how it pans out, but right now I want to say that I’m surprised this wasn’t a season finale moment. Kim willfully turning to the dark side would seem like a nice breaking point, leaving us all to wonder specifically what that will look like. Instead we get two more episodes that will (to some degree at least) have the opportunity to show us.

I’m not complaining. I don’t know which approach I’d prefer. But this feels like the natural point of temporary closure, and it’s pretty gutsy and thrilling that the season has decided to continue beyond it.

Two more weeks. The warehouse is full of piñatas. Season four is going out swinging.

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