Face-Off: The Running Man vs. 31

Rob Zombie's latest film 31 is like a "greatest hits" package, remixing elements from his previous directorial efforts and bringing them back to the screen in a movie with the most simplistic story possible. A story that is quite familiar. The "humans hunting humans" plot is something that has been done time and time again over the years, author Richard Connell did his version of it (The Most Dangerous Game) more than ninety years ago, but there's something about the way 31 does it that is very reminiscent of one other movie in particular: director Paul Michael Glaser's 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle THE RUNNING MAN, which was very loosely based on a Richard Bachman (Stephen King) novel. I couldn't get THE RUNNING MAN out of my head while watching 31, it's like it was begging for the Face-Off treatment. And I believe in giving the people what they want.
Produced in association with the Department of Justice, The Running Man is America's favorite game show in the dystopian future of 2019. "Contestants" are all criminals of some sort, released into an outdoor venue with one objective: survive the constant onslaught of the Stalkers, gimmicky performers who each have their own approach to killing contestants. If a player can evade the Stalkers for the duration of an episode, they win a chance at trial by jury, suspended sentence, or full pardon. At least, that's what viewers are told. Winners are actually executed.
31 is War, and War is Hell. Oh, you need more detail than that? 31 is a game played for the sick amusement of some Satanic British aristocrats on Halloween night. Five randomly selected (abducted) "contestants" are released into a venue called Murder World for twelve hours of torment at the hands of homicidal maniacs called the Heads. If a contestant survives all twelves hours, they get... well, no one has ever survived playing 31, so it hasn't yet been decided what will happen if there's a winner. No rules, no rewards, no purpose but the entertainment of a very select few.
There could not have been a more perfect casting choice for The Running Man host Damon Killian than Richard Dawson, a veteran actor who was also game show royalty for being a brilliant Match Game panelist and the unforgettably kiss-happy host of Family Feud. Dawson portrays the crooked, smarmy Killian in a highly entertaining, amusing way. You want to see him get taken down, but you love watching him on his way to his demise as he arrogantly looks down on everyone around him in private and glad hands the public. Dawson steals the show.
Satanic aristocrats Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Serpent (Jane Carr), and Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson) are both the hosts and the sole viewers of 31, somehow able to monitor what's going on in Murder World and delighted by the violence and grotesqueries they see. They assess the survival odds of contestants and bet on their fates among themselves. They welcome contestants, introduce the Heads, and occasionally talk to the players over a P.A. system. They even offer a mid-game dinner, but you'd be wise not to take part in the feast.
As played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ben Richards is pretty much your typical action hero, a man who will risk his life for the good of others, has a conscience, and is a capable ass-kicker. He became The Running Man material by being framed for a massacre, and after an unsuccessful escape attempt he only agrees to do the show so the people who helped him won't have to - but they're put on the show with him anyway. Some one-liners aside, there's not much special about Richards, but he gets the job done.
The 31 contestants on Halloween of 1976 are five carnival workers, and while these folks curse, screw, and do drugs, what they don't do is come across as fully fleshed out characters. I didn't like or care about any of these people, so I wasn't invested in their plight. As the group is whittled down, it turns out that Charly, a tough-talking, promiscuous pot dealer played by Sheri Moon Zombie, is our heroine, but she's no more interesting than anyone else she entered Murder World with.
The stalking and killing action of The Running Man takes place in a vast, mostly wide open space that the contestants are rocket shuttled into. They and the Stalkers are given a lot of room to work with, and I would say it's more room than necessary - in the venue's space there were once four hundred blocks of the city of Los Angeles, destroyed by an earthquake in 1997. There's really nothing visually interesting about the area in which the "game" is played, it's just rubble and dirt.
31 is played in a massive industrial space that has been turned into a place called Murder World. In some areas, there are exposed pipes, tight hallways, concrete walls, metal gates, chain link fences, and filthy restrooms. In others, set dressing has been done to make rooms look like crusty sex clubs or the worst circus on the planet. This is basically Rob Zombie's mind transposed into a physical location, and the enclosed nature does make these contestants' fight for survival seem more desperate.
One of the greatest things about the Stalkers on The Running Man show is that they didn't exist in the source material, the filmmakers made the decision to have their characters hunted by killers who are like an over-the-top cross between professional wrestlers and comic book villains. There's Professor Subzero, a hockey player with a razor stick and puck bombs; the chainsaw-toting Buzzsaw; electricity blasting, opera-singing Dynamo; and Fireball, who carries a flamethrower. These guys are goofy as hell, and the movie is all the better because of it.
The Heads are paid well for the murders they commit, and are made up to look like the worst clowns this side of Pennywise. There are chainsaw-wielding brothers Psycho Head and Schizo Head, the crossdressing Death Head and his gal pal Sex Head, Chilean Nazi dwarf Sick Head, and the vulgar, faux-philosophical Doom Head. A lot of them don't make as much of an impression as expected. Zombie had hyped Doom as the next great horror villain, but I found him to be an annoyance. Pancho Moler's performance as Sick made him the standout of the bunch for me.
31 didn't prove to be much competition for THE RUNNING MAN in this battle of the life or death games. 31 may have an interesting style, but the '80s sci-fi action flick trounces it whenever characters are involved. For me, THE RUNNING MAN is by far the better and more entertaining film in this pairing.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you prefer Zombie over Arnie? Share your thoughts on these films by leaving a comment below. If you have an idea for a Face-Off pairing you'd like to see, suggestions are always welcome. You can send those directly to me at [email protected].



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