Saturday, May 18, 2024

Classic Movie Review: ‘Runaway’ is Just Entertaining Enough to Keep You Interested

Director: Michael Crichton
Writers: Michael Crichton
Stars: Tom Selleck, Cynthia Rhodes, Gene Simmons

Synopsis: In the near future, a police officer specializes in malfunctioning robots. When a robot turns out to have been programmed to kill, he begins to uncover a homicidal plot to create killer robots… and his son becomes a target.

Thanks to his fear of heights, widower and single dad Sergeant Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) works the ridiculed Runaway Police Division – chasing after errant robots with new Officer Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes). Unfortunately, commonplace robots are now killing, thanks to elaborate microchips designed by Dr. Charles Luther (Gene Simmons), who is eliminating anyone who stands in his way in order to sell his chip templates to the highest bidder. Ramsay must now confront his fears and face a devious enemy who’s always one step ahead thanks to his high-tech weaponry.

Michael Crichton (Westworld) writes and directs the 1984 procedural Runaway, and from the cranky captain and the psychic working for the police department to the romantic conflict of interest between male and female partners, this is brimming with all the cop cliches. Sexy interrogations, stripping down in the de-bug scanning machine, police escort decoys, uniform disguises, and highway chases lead to a rising body count and the villain calling into the police station but hanging up before they can get a trace. We can predict when the baddie hacks into the department system and attacks our officers at home, yet there’s a deliberate comfort in this familiar framework. Runaway’s then contemporary safety makes it easier to go along with the clunky robot fantastics. Many computer terms and technobabble talk are out of date, but today we can certainly relate to the repetitive robot being yelled at to shut up when it isn’t being spoken to a la our ubiquitous echos.

While some special effects are understandably humorous, Crichton shrewdly keeps the focus on whether the people are relaxed over often errant robots or fearful of modified killing machines. Officers new to the Runaway department can ask audience questions and the robot explanations often come with internal jokes and good humor. This laughably serious mix works because we like the cops – it’s both uneven now yet surprisingly self-aware of the silliness by the time our Sergeant is beating a rogue sentry robot with an office chair. Runaway wastes no time in getting to the rogue farming robot, helicopter fears, the farmers laughing at them, and the journalists who think a crying baby in peril thanks to a violent kitchen model is going to be a great shocker for the evening news. Noir shadows and light accent an eerie crime scene with bloody motorized prints on the floor, but Runaway doesn’t always keep up the suspense – the early chuckles and chastising the housekeeper robot for giving a kid too many hot dogs allow us time to breath as this ride along builds naturally with each scene and set piece.

People reminisce about obsolete models that burned the toast, and entire construction sites are automated – no breaks, overtime, union issues – but there are insurance technicalities about who can turn off a stacker bot throwing blocks off the roof. If these unauthorized chips cause fatal malfunctions, it’s not a technical mistake but murder. Bullets that can go around corners and explode pursue our cops, and we see the very freaky point of view amid classified projects at the shady security company and damsels in distress that aren’t who they seem. The routine moments and breathers get shorter as the hotel stakeouts, dizzying stairwells, rooftop stand offs, shootouts, and bot sieges escalate.

Provocative questions about which terrorists or corporations would benefit from sophisticated, heat seeking devices postulate on the big picture while seemingly small bullet wounds are actually embedded explosives in need of immediate removal. The medical monitors are intense with very little as sweating humans would rather take responsibility than let the robots make a mistake and we believe the resulting pain. Runaway doesn’t need today’s excessive effects or suspense orchestrated in the editing room thanks to people in peril and the cop who left his glasses in the car but intends to see the job through anyway. Killer trackers and fiery lasers create highway perils as jumps from car to car escalate to restaurant hostages, public trade-offs, unaware crowds caught in the crossfire, and a memorable demise in the reflecting pool. Thunderstorms accent the spider robots climbing the bathroom walls, and the construction site finale provides elevator dangers and call backs to those earlier on high fears. The spider bots await below while the exposed lift is stuck in the air with no space to avoid the encroaching mechanical critters. Mano y mano battles lead to facing one’s fears, ironic justice, machine toppers, and eighties kisses.

There’s never a doubt that Tom Selleck’s (Magnum P.I.) widower Sergeant Jack Ramsay is a good guy. After losing a killer suspect thanks to his fear of heights, he chose to toil in the Runaway department so he wouldn’t be held back on the streets. Despite some robotics expertise, there are reasons why he doesn’t always trust machines and does things himself, including the brief mention of his wife dying in a car crash and the use of robot drivers. Ramsay says his house bot Lois thinks she is both his wife and his mother, but he’s a great dad when not somersaulting over the desks to impress a pretty lady and stop a sentry robot. Ramsay does get cranky, however, worrying as the case mounts. He knows they are up against too many variables once everything goes awry and he must confront his fears.

We briefly see Kiss hard rocker Gene Simmons early in Runaway as the juicy villain setting up his rival with a suitcase full of paper and an acid shooting robot. However, it’s better when he pops up as a repairman in disguise, lingering at crime scenes, or in the set ups gone wrong because he’s always one step ahead of the cops. His face looks eerie on their monitors, and we believe Luther will eliminate anyone who interferes with his plans. Luther also won’t be betrayed, and Simmons is bemusingly compelling as a chilling menace thanks to his nonchalant, almost camp stare. Cynthia Rhodes’ (Dirty Dancing) traffic transfer Karen Thompson has a wild first few days on the job in Runaway. She preposterously wears a skirt and heels for most of the picture amid the most daring stakeouts and injuries, but Karen’s easy to talk to and likable. We’re on her side as the outsider entering this goofy, increasingly dangerous robot pursuit. Though previously indecisive and overzealous, she admits this excitement is too much, making jokes and whimpering in pain. Viewers wouldn’t blame her if she quit, but Karen sticks by Ramsay – even when she shouldn’t.

Despite the boxy suit jacket, the late Kirstie Alley (Cheers) is an alluring bad girl. Sassy Jackie is stunning in leather, smokes, and tries to remain cool despite her fearful association with Luther, the bugs he plants all over her clothes, and the whips marks on her back. She feigns innocence despite the femme fatale double cross, a vixen who doesn’t overstay her welcome but warns Ramsay his white knight posturing will get someone killed. Our son Joey Cramer (Flight of the Navigator), on the other hand, is a tad pretentious, seemingly too old to be asking golly gee questions. We don’t see him much, but it might have been more interesting to have Ramsay childless – keep his motivation about overcoming his own fear, getting the bad guys, and even revenge for his damaged robot housekeeper. The Lois robot looks like a stack of ye olde stereo equipment on wheels but she makes the pasta al dente and damn if we don’t feel bad when she’s damaged and losing hydraulic fluid!

The tense Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen) score provides electronic notes that seamlessly match those gizmos and sound effects. Runaway does have some futuristic electromagnetic armor and cool weapons, however the overall look here is decidedly contemporary, gritty rather than sci-fi glam. The standard police uniforms, traditional cop cars, and good old .357 magnum (because of course) are fitting considering this is the early eighties when home computers were rare, microwaves were new to the kitchen, and mobile phones were massive. Retro computers, coding, graphics, big motherboards, and bigger monitors here are primitive. The robots are clunky – nothing more than boxes with fancy lights or one that looks like a decorated overhead projector. Yet Runaway was ahead of its time with computers in the police cars, driver-less cars, clipboard looking tablets at the crime scene, reconnaissance drones, retina scans, voice controlled databases, and doorbell cameras. Understandably, the camera footage we see is old and fuzzy and can be rewound like a VCR, the squad room still has classic telephone rings and typewriter click clack, and these valuable microchip templates that everyone’s after are just a wallet full of old photo negatives.

Fortunately, high-rise camera angles that show the city buildings and grid streets looking not dissimilar to the machine circuitry add subtle visual interest while topless ladies, violence, and F-bombs push the newly created PG-13 rating. There’s a lot of tech talk with letters, dashes, and numbers to make things sound Z-22, 5000 model cool, which honestly we still do, and I would very much like to have that automated sushi machine! Runaway is a thriller crime drama that happens to have science fiction elements. It stands on its own, but it also unfortunately came out the same year as a little film called The Terminator and thus, bombed at the box office. Did you have to see Runaway then to enjoy it now? Perhaps. Does it falter in comparison to that other 1984 robot spectacle? Certainly. If you are expecting all out science fiction, Runaway could be disappointing, however there are a few frights, wild robots, and surprising set pieces that remain memorable. Once unavailable and obscure, now Runaway makes the rounds on FAST services, but for years everyone thought I was making this movie up with Magnum P.I., the lead singer from Kiss, and killer spider robots. There’s humor, mystery, MacGuffins, technology, protagonists to root for, and creepy villains to hate that keep Runaway bemusing, suspenseful, and worth a look today.

Grade: B

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