Around 20 years ago, writing under a pseudonym, Stephen King made a couple of rare forays into science fiction with the short novels The Long Walk and The Running Man. In The Long Walk, contestants must keep walking until all but one has dropped dead, while The Running Man features a man who is hunted for sport as part of a TV game show. The Running Man was filmed in the mid-'80s in almost unrecognizable form, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson and a host of professional wrestlers in what was essentially a pumped-up satire of the excesses of that era. The book itself, however, places an ordinary working-class protagonist into a deadly situation as TV cameras and bounty hunters track him down. Take away the element of death from that scenario, and you've got an idea whose time has come in the age of reality TV.
The Long Walk has never been filmed, but both it and The Running Man leave their stamp all over Series 7: The Contenders, the directorial debut of I Shot Andy Warhol co-scribe Daniel Minahan. Framed as a televised marathon of a lethal reality TV program, the film includes a viewer discretion warning and regular cliffhanger montages of what we're about to see in the next "episode." The only things missing are the commercials: Think of Paul Verhoeven's excellent fake TV spots in Robocop.
Our attention is grabbed immediately, before the ground rules are established, when a pregnant woman walks into a convenience store, shoots a customer in the head and loudly demands to know if there's any bean dip. The action is shot on video and presented matter-of-factly, by people who don't look like actors. "Real people! In real danger!" proclaims an omnipresent narrator. "The only prize is the only prize that counts: your life!" The pregnant woman is Dawn (Brooke Smith), the reigning champion of the deadly TV show The Contenders -- now in its seventh season. Having won twice, she has to win one more round to gain her freedom. Since she's eight months pregnant, she presumably conceived the child while on the run, but that backstory is never fleshed out. The rules of the contest are simple: Be the last of six contestants left alive. No suicide is permitted; no one other than a contestant should be killed; and no hostages can be taken.
Series 7: The Contenders
Participants are selected at random by government ID number -- all but the reigning champion live in a particular area that has been chosen for the game -- then notified in the middle of the night by masked operatives. This time around, the contestants are Tony (Michael Kaycheck), a middle-aged schlump; Connie (Marylouise Burke), a conservative Catholic nurse who supports euthanasia; Franklin (Richard Venture), an old man without any distinguishing characteristics; Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a teen virgin; and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), a cancer patient who literally doesn't have the balls for killing.
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Dawn quickly goes about calling the other contestants and terrorizing them, hoping to flush them out. Tony, well versed in pro-wrestling taunts, throws around insults like "God should come down and fuck her mother just for having her," while simultaneously managing to turn his wife and children against him. Young Lindsay's parents get wholeheartedly into the swing of things, driving her to a kill as if driving her to school, and checking to see that she has all her guns. Franklin, not being much of a character to begin with, doesn't do much, and Jeff simply waits for death.
And Connie? Once she makes her first kill -- the first of the contest -- she gets over her distaste for murder and becomes the most ruthless of the bunch. Indeed, she seems to be the only one capable of working out a master plan rather than relying on the run-and-shoot technique the others employ.
Meanwhile, the narrator provides an idiotic history of Newbury, Connecticut, where the action is set, then delivers play-by-play commentary on an instant replay of a shoot-out, and even, toward the end, substitutes "re-enactment footage" for a climactic moment where the original tape was destroyed due to a technical error. Despite these and other satirical touches, the film's strength is that it draws you in as though it were a real reality show. Like Kinji Fukasaku's controversial Battle Royale, in which ninth-graders must kill each other as part of a government antidelinquency program, the satiric touches take a backseat to the tension the characters are feeling. However, unlike Fukasaku's film, which was more like a Hollywood actioner in execution, Series 7 has a low-budget look coupled with ultrarealistic gore and unstylized deaths shown without any cinematic flash.
The cast is uniformly good, especially Brooke Smith as Dawn, who has to be the ass-kickingest pregnant chick since Frances McDormand donned that funny-lookin' fur hat up in North Dakota. Part of the actors' strength, though, may also be a weakness: These folks look and act like real people rather than stars. But take a gander at The Real World, Survivor and their ilk, and notice how those casts don't look like the rest of the population. While TV executives may someday devise contests in which real people are actually killed, it's unlikely that anyone as plain-looking as Dawn would be cast in the lead. Unless the point is to gradually eliminate from society anyone that isn't glamorous.