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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 37.5%
Pretty Bad: 12.5%
Total Crap: 6.25%

2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Runaway (1984)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Selleck Makes it All Worthwhile"
4 stars

Off an $8 million budget, it underperformed at $6,770,587, but no accounting for taste.

Tom Selleck delivers a twenty-four-karat star performance in the silly but enjoyable sci-fi action picture Runaway, and it’s a distinct pleasure watching a solid and charismatic actor who knows exactly what he’s doing. I’m not saying Selleck is bursting with brilliance, either here or in his previous works, only that he takes what could’ve been a two-dimensional character and makes it a believable characterization even when all that’s surrounding him is fairly outlandish. As Sergeant Jack Ramsay of the Los Angeles “runaway” squad, which deals with malfunctioning robots in this near future, Selleck forgoes two-fisted machismo and comes across as appealingly human; a widower who lost his wife to a car crash and is raising a young son with the help of a feminine-voiced domestic robot named Lois (it cooks meals along with grading the boy’s homework), he used to be a street cop, but due to chasing a suspect into a tall building that resulted in an acute case of acrophobia, he started taking robotic classes at night and became the police force’s leading expert in the field. Most of the calls are what in this technological time are considered routine: a farmhand that rids fields of crop-killing worms goes haywire; a construction helper starts dropping loads of cement mix off a high building; a sentry laser-zapping office workers wanting to leave. Ramsay, decked out in blast-pad protective gear even though all that might be involved is throwing a switch, looks fairly ridiculous amid his standard-uniformed colleagues, but Selleck, who looked spectacular in a tuxedo just a few months prior in the fine, easygoing London crime tale Lassiter (he even managed to parody his image by briefly wearing a pink lingerie after a brief getting-out-of-bed buns shot), wears it with conviction, though it probably could’ve been bettered with a wee bit more imagination by the costume designer, Betsy Cox. Enter rookie detective Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes), Ramsay’s new partner who’s just come over from traffic duty – it’s through Karen that the writer/director, Michael Crichton, initiates the audience into the movie’s techno-jargon; and Selleck sells us on it with the persuasiveness Michael Biehn did in The Terminator. This being filmdom, Karen is immediately attracted to Ramsay, and a dastardly scheme by the villain gets under way on Karen’s first day. The man in question is one Dr. Charles Luther (played by Gene Simmons of the rock band "KISS"), who’s developed a program where a robot can identify a camouflaged human through thermo-imaging and take him out, making it a must-have in military applications. If the U.S. government isn’t willing to pay for it, then why, pray tell, not to the highest bidder even if it’s a terroristic country? Luther reasons. Luther has two other weapons at his disposal: a chip that can turn machines into human-killers; and an elongated supergun whose missile-like bullets seek out a particular human’s unique heat signature. Ramsay gets onto the megalomaniacal Luther’s trail after an attempted assassination of a colleague fails: the compromised home machine has killed the man’s wife with a .357 but misses the husband; Ramsay saves their baby and learns that Luther needs all of his new program’s master templates to mass-produce it, half of which are in the hands of his police-detained moll, Jackie (Kirstie Allen), who wants to deal herself out of this mess. And wouldn’t you just know, all of this culminates in a half-constructed skyscraper where Ramsay will have to overcome his fear of heights.

One doesn’t quite know what to make of Michael Crichton. An immensely intelligent man who graduated from Harvard Medical School and has penned numerous novels (particular in the science fiction field) that have sold over two-hundred million copies worldwide, he’s written and directed movies ranging from excellent (The Great Train Robbery), good (Westworld), acceptable (Coma) and rotten (Looker). He’s progressively been getting worse, so it’s a relief that Runaway is a step up in the right direction even if its acumen is nothing to write home about. Roger Ebert has noted that the heat-seeking bullets, for the sake of Crichton using their point-of-view as they move toward their target (even going around corners) to titillate the audience, move with little stealth where the target can dodge them. I concur, though the camerabatics involved are oftentimes dazzling. Equally dumbfounding is Crichton not making it clear just how Luther is able to program a target’s heat signature into the bullets. How exactly does he acquire Ramsay’s signature, for instance? And since we see Luther shoot down a couple of uniformed cops who are at the wrong place at the wrong time, we assume the bullets lock onto a human’s body heat in general; but if this is the case, then why don’t the bullets immediately circle around and nail Luther who’s closer? Plus, Ramsay’s able to fool a bullet simply by putting himself behind a heat source (in one case, a mere candle!) so the bullet strikes it instead. What a mad genius, that Luther – he’s invented a smartgun that fires dunce-capped ammunition. Granted, this is science fiction; still, there needs to be some ratiocination to lend some credence to an invention like this. (As L.Q. Jones, who directed and did the adaptation of the 1975 masterpiece A Boy and his Dog, once noted: “The more out-there your story premise is, the more rock-solid the inner logic needs to be.”) There was also something best described as a flash-gun in Looker, and there, too, it was used inconsistently: sometimes it blinded and paralyzed its target for hours, sometimes just minutes. Crichton may have an M.D. to his credit, but when it comes to his screenplays he can be just as jejune as your non-college-educated Hollywood hack. In Looker, Crichton failed at the simple task of explaining just why all those supermodels were being killed off and replaced by computer simulations; and in Coma it never made a bit of sense why neither the janitor nor the heroine didn’t go straight to the police once he or she discovered the secret nitrous being fed into that particular operating room (not to mention, the hospital opening itself to countless expensive lawsuits on the part of the families of the patients put in irreversible comas, which would've eliminated any profit margin from the black-market organ harvesting). In Runaway, Luther’s thinking he’s probably going to have to sell his deadly program to another country is worthy of a few guffaws – why on earth would the U.S. government not be willing to vastly open the purse strings for something so invaluable in taking out their enemies? Because it wouldn’t be “playing nice”? Pu-lease. When Crichton writes a novel, for the most part he covers his bases in thinking his material through so there aren’t a whole lot of logic loopholes; but when left to his own devices in his screenplays, he’s more about sensationalism than coherence where there are so many holes the story might as well be a shotgunned Swiss cheese. And for such a smart guy, and one who’s a multi-millionaire who doesn’t need to suck up to Hollywood to be considered an artist, why does he give us just another hackneyed romance and the hero having a child so he can inevitably be put in jeopardy?

On the other hand, Runaway is entertaining for so much of the time that we’re willing to give it a pass on the basis of suspension-of-disbelief. Technically assured, Crichton, for the most part, knows what to look at, how to look at it, and how long to look at it. (Particularly notable is his ability at getting us “into” a scene by starting one with a close-up of a relevant object without the shot ever calling undue attention to itself). Working with the invaluable cinematographer John A. Alonzo, Crichton is smoother with the widescreen frame this time around (he used it rather clunkily in Looker, where it seemed to be burdening him), and though the daylight exteriors and talking-heads office interiors are rather average, the nighttime scenes have the kind of velvety blacks Alonzo brought off in Blue Thunder. There’s an exciting sequence on a highway where Ramsay and Jackie are in the backseat of an automated car being chased by Luther’s explosives-equipped devices that look like model cars, and then have to transfer to another car when they’ve run out of decoys; a biting-your-nails one where Ramsay has to manually extract an unexploded shell out of Karen’s arm because he doesn’t trust a late-model disarming robot to do it; and a wow! of a finale in that skyscraper where Ramsay has to battle Luther’s spider-like robots that can inject its victims with acid before detonating (the special effects here are really spectacular, especially when Ramsay must crawl under a stopped open elevator several stories up to engage the override switch). Dialogue has never been Crichton’s strong suit, at least in movies, and while there isn’t a single memorable line to be had, there aren’t any cringe-inducing ones that make you wish the characters would forever lose the power of speech. The performances, however, are a mixed bag. G. W. Bailey, who amusingly played a martinet of a police instructor in Police Academy, plays Ramsay’s bitchy superior with competence. Cynthia Rhodes, who was the best thing about the ill-advised Saturday Night Fever sequel Stayin’ Alive, tries too hard to be “spunky,” but the sexy Kirstie Alley is forceful and very funny – finding herself in the midst of something she wants no part of, Jackie’s nerves are like that of a three-pack-a-day smoker’s fidgeting for a fix; and Alley demonstrates a snappy wit that enables her to hold her own with Selleck and makes us wish she had more screen time. (After her character is killed off, Alley’s panache is sorely missed.) Most disappointing is Gene Simmons, who looks the part, all right, but doesn’t emanate much in the way of danger; he was considerably livelier as the Arab terrorist in the otherwise-contemptible Wanted: Dead or Alive, where here he fails at being menacing. (Luther, a genius? All the limited Simmons suggests is someone who’d fail at placing in the top-ten at a high-school science fair.) But the hero makes or breaks Runaway, and Tom Selleck delivers. Even in his starring debut in the lackluster High Road to China, Selleck proved he was more than just a pretty-boy TV actor; playing a WWII drunken fighter pilot having to deal with Bess Armstrong’s fussy trust-fund spoiled brat, Selleck did some beautiful underplaying and made that 1981 debacle almost worth watching. As Ramsay, Selleck’s playing a family man for once, and he never overdoes the character’s vulnerability or makes the father-and-son relationship soapy – he even manages to (almost) cover the fact that the actor playing the son is, to put it mildly, quite awful. He effortlessly holds the screen the way only a genuine talent can, and he has a remarkable moment when Ramsay decides to give up his gun to save the life of a brother officer, and he sheds a crocodile tear before putting down his weapon, knowing full well he’ll probably be killed and leave a son behind. For all the extravagant special effects in Runaway, it’s this affecting bit that we take with us after leaving the theater.

Long overdue is a region-1 Blu-Ray.

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originally posted: 07/27/18 05:26:31
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User Comments

8/09/17 danR Director Chrichton at his clueless best: woodenly destroying Writer Chrichton. 2 stars
2/05/03 Jack Sommersby Silly yet admittedly fun stuff. Selleck and photography are superb 3 stars
2/04/03 Mike Ditka Robot God awful...poor G.W. Bailey 1 stars
2/03/03 Charles Tatum Unintentionally hilarious 2 stars
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  14-Dec-1984 (PG-13)



Directed by
  Michael Crichton

Written by
  Michael Crichton

  Tom Selleck
  Cynthia Rhodes
  Gene Simmons
  Kirstie Alley
  Stan Shaw
  G.W. Bailey

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