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a man with long hair rides on the hood of a speeding car in the dark but it’s actually on stage because this is cirque du soleil! Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil

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Robert Rodriguez’s Alita follow-up is actually a giant Cirque du Soleil show

Run aims to bring the action movie aesthetic to stage

RUN, the latest project from Alita director Robert Rodriguez, opens with the main character interrupting a wedding, swiping a heart-shaped necklace with a secret purpose, and igniting a war between the rival gangs Street Kingz and Blackjax. With echoes of Rodriguez’s work on Sin City, it’s heavily influenced by the style of graphic novels, and the pulpy, sometimes sleazy story includes a car chase through the desert, a near-drowning, a torture scene, and a climactic motorcycle battle. Oh, and it’s not a movie: Run is a live stage show performed by Cirque du Soleil, five nights a week at the Luxor hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

Rodriguez introduces the main character, known as “Me,” crashing through a window from the screen into an impressively staged set piece featuring stunt performers combat fighting amid the audience. But nothing announces RUN’s ambitions to be an action movie in a live theater setting like the subsequent transition into giant opening credits.

Set to a cover of Twenty One Pilots’ “Jumpsuit” by film composer Tyler Bates and Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, the credits splash the names of the show’s creative team (including Bates, who created the original music, and Rodriguez, who wrote the script) in massive letters. Me paces in contemplation beneath the huge screen in front of the stage.

The “Level Up” motorcycle stunt scene from R.U.N - The First Live Action Thriller Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil

The beats of a propulsive action movie provide RUN with the structure for a series of ambitious stunt performances. It’s a new direction for Cirque, which has six other resident shows in Vegas: It’s the first of the group’s shows to feature a scripted narrative and dialogue, the first to focus on stunts rather than circus arts, and the first to be created in collaboration with a Hollywood filmmaker.

“There have been people at Cirque working on the idea of doing a show featuring stunts for about four years now,” explains producer Gabriel Pinkstone. “We’re always looking for different stuff, and frankly we explore a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work out and that you never see. And then we explore things that get us excited, and that’s where we ended up with this.”

As with all Cirque productions, RUN went through a lengthy development process before its premiere, with contributions from numerous creative personnel. “The one thing that is really great about this forum, this environment, is it’s truly a team sport,” says Bates, who was recruited on the strength of his scores for action movies like 300, Atomic Blonde and the John Wick series.

“As we went through the process, we were like, ‘we need to get the real deal in,’” Pinkstone says of reaching out to Rodriguez and Bates. “When you get that flavor in the script and that flavor in the music, it’s huge. And then we bring our expertise in human performance and everything that comes with that, and put it all together, and here we are with a live action thriller.”

The “live” part of that tag line means that RUN’s performers are putting on movie-style stunts directly in front of an audience every night. The heart-shaped necklace that Me swipes from characters known only as the Bride and the Groom serves as the MacGuffin for the thinly sketched plot. It’s the kind of simple, broad outline that might have formed the plot for a platformer a decade ago. Video games are one of the major influences cited by the show’s director Michael Schwandt and creation director Stefan Miljevic.

The films of Rodriguez and Bates were even more influential, especially 300 and Sin City, and graphic novels, like the Frank Miller books that inspired those two films. As indicated by the lack of specific character names, the characters in RUN are also meant to be easily identifiable. Me wants the heart necklace and to reunite with the Bride (his ex). The Groom wants to get the necklace back and to kill Me. The Bride is caught in the middle.

“They’re not going to be able to speak, so you can’t get that personal with it, because the audience would just not know what’s going on,” Rodriguez says. “We had to go with the archetypes, so that even from far away, you know, okay, that’s the Groom, that’s the Bride, and that’s Me. You have to just be able to follow and know instantly who you’re looking at.” All of the dialogue comes in the form of voiceover narration or is delivered in the extensive video segments that play between set pieces (and sometimes make the show feel like watching an elaborate movie with occasional in-person interludes).

Although the show’s roots are in action movies, video games, graphic novels, theme-park stunt shows and Cirque’s own long history, RUN really is its own unique entity, and if it’s still finding its footing soon after premiering, that, too, is part of Cirque’s development process. The company never stops tweaking the shows, even its first Vegas production, Mystere, which has been running since December 1993 at the Treasure Island hotel-casino. Every Cirque production is a constant work in progress.

A car drives along the open desert with comic book lettering reading “Hero: They have eyes everywhere.” Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil

RUN was developed as a series of action sequences before the story was even constructed, and the show works best when the narrative and the stunts can work in tandem. “It wasn’t as if Robert could just write whatever he wanted to write without regard to what we need to do live on stage, because it just wouldn’t work like that,” Schwandt says. “We still have to make the story work with the performance that we decided we wanted to include in the show.”

RUN’s biggest flaw is that it hasn’t consistently resolved that tension, but sequences including the onstage car chase, a warehouse-set fight with multiple performers set on fire and the final gang battle via motorcycle stunts are so impressive on their own that it doesn’t really matter how they relate to a story or characters.

It’s clear that the creative team was aiming for a smoother integration, though. “You connect the voiceover with the character you saw on the screen, and now you follow him through the show, and you’ll always know what’s going on,” Rodriguez says. “It’s great, so the audience is never confused. Because otherwise if you lose track, you might lose interest, and then it’s just a bunch of stunts.”

“I’m very happy with how it turned out, because you never think, ‘Oh, they’re stopping the story now to do the stunts,’” Pinkstone adds. “They’re just in the story, like they are in Mission: Impossible or John Wick or anything else.” Neither Mission: Impossible nor John Wick has yet made it to the Las Vegas stage, but with acclaimed filmmakers like Rodriguez willing to lend their talents to Cirque, it’s enticing to think what someone like Christopher McQuarrie or Chad Stahelski could do with the same opportunity.