Night of the Running Man (1995): Lester’s DTV Dash

Matty hits the pavements with a rock solid thriller from the director of Commando.

Following Warner Bros.’ hasty reediting of his nonetheless excellent knockabout action comedy Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991), two things happened for venerable genre-meister Mark L. Lester. Artistically, the Commando (1985) helmer began actively pursuing grittier material (though anyone versed in the unflinchingly honest and prescient likes of Class of 1984 (1982) and Class of 1999 (1990) will know Lester’s thirst for such grit had always been there to some extent). And business-wise, Lester, who, across the preceding decade, had also navigated fellow majors Universal, United Artists, and 20th Century Fox, started longing for a return to his independent roots, when he’d belted out such giddy B-flicks as Steel Arena (1973) and Truck Stop Women (1974) for the drive-in circuit. With the video market ostensibly the drive-in of the ‘90s, retrospectively, Lester’s new path was obvious. Seizing the chance to make the stories he wanted his way, in 1993 Lester founded American World Pictures alongside then wife/producing partner Dana Dubovsky, and struck a deal with Mark Amin’s Trimark Pictures at the same year’s Cannes Festival. Amin was to distribute Lester’s final for-hire work, S.I.S.: Extreme Justice (1993), and agreed to pony up the cash for a slate of ten DTV films that American World were to supply Amin with. 

Of the ten, first out of the gate was NIGHT OF THE RUNNING MAN

Based on a 1981 novel by Lee Wells and, for all intents and purposes, written for the screen by Wells himself (depending on your sources, the mysterious author allegedly passed away in 1982, so it’s either an old screenplay, someone operating under a naughty pseudonym, or mistaken identity), Night of the Running Man is a compelling mix of neo-noir and chase thriller. Ex-Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy stars as downtrodden Vegas cabbie Jerry Logan: a trailer-dwelling, chain-smoking, bar-hopping ghost of a person who falls afoul of creepy assassin Eckhart (Scott Glenn) after a twitchy, soon-to-be-killed fare leaves a cool $1million in the back of his taxi — money that, naturally, was swiped from a crooked casino boss (an effectively intimidating cameo from Mr. Vegas himself, Wayne Newton).

Despite being a solid and perpetually engaging bit of entertainment, Night of the Running Man never quite achieves the brilliance it veers close to for a couple of reasons. The big one is that it’s so front-loaded. Night of the Running Man is a film with an infinitely stronger start than finish, and its dip in momentum becomes glaringly obvious during the late-in-the-day introduction of McCarthy’s nurse love interest (Silk Stalkings’ Janet Gunn). Moreover, it really loses its stylistic muscle once McCarthy’s attempts to outmanoeuvre Glenn find him fleeing to Salt Lake City and, then, Los Angeles; the inimitable textures, vibe, production value, and sense of place afforded by the City of Lights replaced by flat-looking sets and dime-a-dozen locations.

However, the pros far outweigh the cons. Night of the Running Man’s tech credentials are fabulous and Lester, while unable to overcome the above-noted pacing issues, does twist the suspense screws with gusto in the film’s mostly excellent set pieces. Often bum-clenchingly tense, the fun Lester elicits from Glenn and McCarthy’s cat n’ mouse dynamic is glorious, the helmer zeroing in on eminently quotable lines that betray scripter Wells’ hardboiled pulp influences. Aiding Lester are a trio of great performances. John Glover provides the pomp as a grinning, scene-stealing associate of Glenn, and initial fears of McCarthy seeming somewhat dumb and idiotic are quickly allayed when you realise his schmuck of a character is making a series of very human errors. Logan is an average Joe caught in an increasingly desperate situation; he’s not devious and his flubs — booking train and plane tickets in his own name, revealing too much info to a waitress, striking a bar tab — succeed in painting him as a screamingly normal and relatable guy guilty only of trying his luck, as we all would. But let’s be clear: as an acting showcase, Night of the Running Man is a Glenn vehicle through and through.

Having previously gifted Lester a similarly powerhouse turn in S.I.S.: Extreme Justice, here, Glenn is quite simply astounding. A shark in a sharp suit, Glenn’s near unstoppable fixer teems with mythology (“They put Eckhart on you, you’ve done something big,” smirks Glover), and Night of the Running Man fizzes with electricity every time the actor bursts into frame. From his iconic opening bow (whereupon he nonchalantly snaps the neck of perennial DTV bit-player Kathrin Lautner in a post-coital embrace) to his final… Well, we’ll keep it spoiler free, OK? Just know this: there aren’t enough adjectives to describe Glenn’s barnstorming portrayal in this attention-holding caper.

USA ● 1995 ● Thriller ● 93mins

Andrew McCarthy, Scott Glenn, Janet Gunn, John Glover ● Dir. Mark L. Lester ● Wri. Lee Wells, from his 1981 novel ‘Night of the Running Man’

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