Should I Watch..? 'The Running Man'
What's the big deal?
The Running Man is a sci-fi action film released in 1987 and is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym of author Stephen King. The film is set in a dystopian future where convicted criminals are forced to compete on a gladiatorial game show for their freedom. The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto and Richard Dawson and was directed by Paul Michael Glaser. The film received a mixed reaction from critics and was only a moderate success at the box office, with domestic earnings of $38.1 million. However, the film has since been reappraised for its predictions on the nature of so-called reality TV, the economic collapse and the ever-widening gap between socio-economic classes.
What's it about?
In the then-future of 2017, the United States becomes a totalitarian police state following a global economic collapse. Amid social unrest, the Government censors all cultural activity besides the broadcast of game-shows where convicts attempt to survive in order to win their freedom. The most successful of these shows is The Running Man - the highest-rated show in TV history and hosted by Damon Killian, which sees criminals compete in a deadly pursuit against armed mercenaries in a number of arenas.
In 2019, former police officer Ben Richards is framed for initiating a violent riot for food in Bakersfield, California. Escaping from his prison camp along with two members of an underground resistance movement, Richards catches the attention of Killian who immediately begins efforts to get him on the show. Aware that he is being monitored, Richards bumps into network employee Amber Mendez and tries to use her as a hostage to escape to freedom. Unfortunately, Killian's net draws ever tighter...
Maria Conchita Alonso
Marvin J. McIntyre
Paul Michael Glaser
Steven E. de Souza*
Release Date (UK)
23rd September, 1988
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
What's to like?
Few people would accuse The Running Man of being a deep picture but as a crowd-pleasing action film, it absolutely smashes it. Relying on Schwarzenegger's charisma, the film is a pulpy blend of gory violence and macabre humour that is instantly familiar to fans of his early films in the Eighties. Frankly, it feels like professional wrestling if there wasn't any regulators ready to take it off the air. But it's also eerily accurate in portraying how TV has evolved into a gaudy pursuit of extremes to present to a rabid and ever-hungry audience. Although the sets, style and costumes are very much of the time, it's genuinely disturbing how the film's concept hasn't made it to actual TV. Yet. I also found it interesting how the film demonstrated how easy it was to fool people through careful editing and mock footage, something that anyone used to hearing the phrase 'fake news' would identify.
As solid as big Arnold is in the lead, his eclectic supporting cast also do a great job of backing him up. Dawson is fantastic as the show's host lacking any empathy whatsoever in his pursuit of ratings while the film's use of larger-than-life actors for the show's popular characters pays dividends with memorable turns from Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, Professor Toru Tanaka and most memorably from Erland van Lidth as the electric Dynamo. Despite the narrative, the film feels stripped back and raw with little pretense and a tongue firmly in cheek which is the right approach for this film. My advice is to not dwell upon how a film such as this might not be that far from reality and just enjoy the thrills and spills as best as you can.
- De Souza later admitted in interviews that one of the producers for the TV show American Gladiators sold the show to the networks with clips from this film included. Part of their pitch was "We’re doing exactly this - except the murdering part."
- Dawson's casting as Killian was partly inspired by his real-life tenure as the host of Family Feud (known in the UK as Family Fortunes) between 1976-1985. Many people who worked with Dawson claimed that he wasn't that dissimilar to Killian in his treatment of underlings.
- Director Glaser replaced original director Andrew Davis after the latter was fired after eight days, having fallen behind schedule and already $8 million over budget. Schwarzenegger called the decision to make Glaser the director 'terrible', stating that his background in TV meant the film was shot like a TV show and much of the film's themes were lost.
- The film also predicted the use of digital face replacements in film and TV, which was first used just six years later in 1993's Jurassic Park. A three-second shot replaces the stunt-woman's face with that of a teenage girl as she escapes from dinosaurs through a roof.
What's not to like?
Although it is in keeping with the camp and gaudy nature of the show, the film has a deeply cheesy feel that makes taking the movie seriously rather difficult. You can't fault the cast who deliver their dialogue and one-liners with a nod and a wink to the camera. I'd be more inclined to blame director Glaser, who hadn't handled a film of this size before and displays a disappointing lack of imagination. The action scenes, while exciting and a little different from the norm, aren't that difference from each other and he isn't helped by the narrative. In essence, it's like Game Of Death which saw Bruce Lee deal with a number of varying opponents one after the other but with little propelling the story forward. The film tries to inject some interest in the scenes behind the scenes (as it were) but generally, these only really explain how poor Alonso ended up on the show herself.
But if we're really honest here (and I always am with you, dear reader) then the film is only really going to appeal to action film fans who will probably have seen this cult hit already. In many ways, it reminded me of another Schwarzenegger film - the original Total Recall. Like The Running Man, that film is a sci-fi flavoured action flick that deals with themes not immediately apparent to the average viewer but ultimately gets upstaged by the blood, gun fights and fisticuffs. Like I said, this film does have enough of an insight to still remain curiously watchable these days when TV is jam-packed with programmes depicting physical game-shows and larger-than-life characters pretending to be real people. After all, is there anything more outlandish in something like Tiger King?
Should I watch it?
The Running Man is big dumb fun done right, with clashing neon and a cheesy atmosphere that's impossible to dislike. Schwarzenegger and Dawson make for an unlikely clash of personalities in this action classic which overcomes its uninspired direction and narrative with quality casting, good humour and inventive action scenes. It's a change of pace for jaded action fans looking for something a little different but the film won't do much for anyone hoping for a genuinely intelligent sci-fi film.
Great For: action film lovers, jaded network executives, anyone put off by horror film adaptations of King's work
Not So Great For: reality TV stars, the overly serious, fans of the book (this is a very loose adaptation)
What else should I watch?
For some reason, the first film that sprung to my mind when thinking about The Running Man was a low-budget indie film from 2001 called Series 7: The Contenders. Written and directed by Daniel Minahan, the film is a mockumentary about a deady reality game-show which sees members of the public drawn to random to compete in an open-world battle to the death. The film is a black satire on reality television and the obsession with violence in the media - it certainly has more to say about these things than many other movies. Gamer, for example, is a depressing and mindless shooter featuring Gerard Butler as a human avatar for a teenage gaming nerd and is about as deep and meaningful as Barney the dinosaur.
Alternatively, you might consider the controversial Japanese movie Battle Royale which also features a televised contest to the death but featuring a cast of schoolmates forced to fight each other to the death. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Koushun Takami, the film is a visceral and disturbing experience that reflects the fears of youth crime in Japan in the same way the novel did when it was first published in 1999. Derided by critics at the time for its depiction of violence, the film has proved influential to a number of other filmmakers and authors - most notably the B-movie The Condemned and the highly successful The Hunger Games series.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox