Night of the Running Man

Director: Mark L. Lester                       
Scott Glenn, Andrew McCarthy, John Glover

Can a movie really be recommended just because of the exceptional merit of a particular performance? On the TV show Siskel and Ebert, both of those critics occasionally claimed that a movie was worth seeing "for the performance(s) of the lead actor(s)." Hearing a remark such as this has previously done little to convince me to watch the particular movie the critic has recommended. After all, an actor can only do so much. If the story is weak, what can he act with? How can he make a boring or stupid script involving by just his performance? What can he do when his character isn't onscreen? Yet, despite these questions that come to mind, I am sorely tempted to follow in Siskel and Ebert's steps and instantly give a recommendation to Night of the Running Man, because of the performance by Scott Glenn.

I was initially surprised to see Glenn being given top billing in the credits, because he is not the central character. He plays mob hitman Eckhart, who is hired to track down Andrew McCarthy's character, and he's not seen for the first fifteen minutes or so, when the situation and lead character is being established. But when he finally comes onscreen, it quickly became clear why he was given the first acting credit. His introduction starts off innocently enough, but soon enough we get to know what a cold and vicious bastard he is. This side of his character is never dropped from our memories; soon afterwards, when he is held up by knifepoint by a mugger, Eckhart uses his own knife to slash the mugger's eyes, blandly telling his shrieking victim to, "Get a dog." Glenn is so captivating in all of his scenes, one forgets the problems of this movie - almost.

There's nothing really wrong with the idea of this movie, even if it's been done before (Blue Money, with Tim Curry, did a variation of this). Andrew McCarthy plays a shabby Las Vegas taxi driver named Logan, who picks up a nervous looking man with a briefcase outside of a casino at the beginning of the movie. Driving to the airport, their cab is attacked by the occupants of another car, the man is killed, and the assassins flee when witnesses come along. Not wanting to hang around, Logan drives home, and finds the slain man's briefcase in the back - which contains a million dollars. Apparently, Logan feels that his ship has come in, because he decides to flee with the money, not knowing that the owners of the money soon dispatch Eckhart to retrieve the money by any means he feels is necessary.

At least, that's what I think - because we never really get to know Logan's character at all, especially in the beginning of the movie, where we don't even know his name. Nor do we find out his name being "Logan" until over a quarter of the movie has gone by. In fact, aside from a painfully contrived monologue late in the movie where he complains that he never had anything previously to look forward to, that's about it for his character development. This results in his character being hard to feel any sympathy for. If the movie had spent a few minutes establishing what kind of person Logan is, we might be able to understand why he takes the insane risk of stealing and fleeing with mob money. Instead, this action and others he commits later in the movie come off as actions of an idiot, and not, say, someone who is for some reason understandably naive of what really goes on behind the scenes of Las Vegas. Why not portray Logan as an intelligent man who knows of the risk he's taking, but feels that for one reason or another he must take the money? Possibly because that would require effort by the screenwriter, and it would also require effort by McCarthy to make this character believable. That could explain why former brat-packer McCarthy puts forth no effort, giving a bland performance.

There are other problems in the movie which contribute to the overall lack of tension. In the first half of the movie, there isn't much action - Logan just has maybe two brief encounters with Eckhart before escaping quite easily. The second encounter starts off nicely, with Eckhart sliding up to Logan in a crowded airport restaurant and brandishing a knife towards Logan's torso. The clever way Eckhart manages to get beside Logan, and the fact that he's willing to kill Logan in public shows what a scary villain Eckhart is, being both smart and having nothing stopping his mission. But the director stops the momentum the scene is building by soon afterwards having Logan not only easily escaping from Eckhart, but getting away fairly easily as well. Then later in the movie when Logan is in L.A., Logan teams up with a woman (played by Janet Gunn) who agrees to help him. Of course, she's really only there to eventually provide the obligatory love interest and sex scene (clichéd further by the love scene taking place in front of a fire in the fireplace - in L.A. during the summertime?). Though her part does initially provide some use to the plot, aside from becoming the hero's love interest she adds nothing else to the plot, except for what happens to her at a scene near the end of the movie, which I'm fairly confident that you already guessed.

Despite all of this, there are a number of things in Night of the Running Man that I enjoyed. The photography, especially the scenes showing Las Vegas at night, is excellent throughout. Lester's choice of locations is also good, with a variety of scenic locations (including one scene at a dam). The action and violence, while not frequent, packs a punch with its casual attitude to brutality, especially in the climax, which is both brutal and very suspenseful. It's always fun to see Wayne Newton in a movie (here he plays a mob boss), though his total screen time adds up to only about a minute. And as I said before, there is Glenn's performance, contributing to make one of the most memorable movie villains of the 90s. But he is actually outclassed by another performer in this movie. John Glover plays an L.A. based hitman associate of Eckhart. One scene has Glover telling someone, "If you try anything - anything - I promise I'll shoot you. I won't kill you, but I'll shoot you, and you'll still have a while to wait, only you'll be waiting in a great deal of pain," barely keeping back his sadistic glee. Glover's character isn't only smart and brutal like Eckhart, but he is clearly sadistic and insane. He subsequently passes the time by exercising his sadistic streak in a sequence that even this jaded viewer, who has seen everything, found tough to watch, especially with Glover's apparent perverse pleasure in this activity. It's only his brief appearance in the movie that possibly keeps him from being billed higher than Glenn.

Which leads back to the question I posed at the beginning of this review: Can a performance alone make a movie worth watching? I say no, because a movie depends not just on acting, but direction and writing to carry it through its running time. A movie works by many well crafted parts interlocked and working well together. If you ignore the acting parts of Night of the Running Man, you come up with a mediocre, though not altogether bad, movie. Though when you fit those limited number of working parts to the two well crafted parts of Glenn and Glover, you get a working machine. There are still a number of problems with the machine - it doesn't run altogether perfectly - but it works enough to, in the immortal words of Siskel and Ebert, give the movie "a marginal thumbs up."

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See also: Automatic, Seven Hours To Judgement, Taking The Heat