Paul Michael Glaser’s “The Running Man” (1987) felt like a top-tier Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle upon release.
It was based on a novella by Richard Bachman, who we later learned was Stephen King. It followed the competent, well-produced vehicles like “Commando” (clearly, Schwarzenegger had better luck picking movies than Chuck Norris), and it was coming right after a big home run with “Predator” earlier in the year.
Because the premise suggested not only a dystopic futurist parable but also the classic “The Most Dangerous Game,” it seemed Schwarzenegger was finally going to be known for more than saying three words on screen.
Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a helicopter pilot who is framed for a heinous crime he didn’t commit. He’s sent to prison, then forced to participate in a vile and wildly popular TV game show called The Running Man.
The host of the series is also a power player within the social structure of this corrupt world (at least as much as Caesar Flickerman was in “The Hunger Games”).
Steven de Souza adapted Richard Bachman’s novella and the dialogue is amusingly dopey. Early on, Schwarzenegger protests, “To hell with you. I will not fire on helpless human beings!” I’m unconvinced that even Meryl Streep could make that line work.
This plays like “The Hunger Games” for grown-ups. However, a movie that aims to be this gnarly should be closer to the no-holds-barred, shocking and brilliant film “The Hunger Games” ripped off, which is “Battle Royale” (2000).
Instead, this has the crowd-pleasing safety net of the former and none of the savage satire and barbarity of the latter. However, it is authentically a red meat ’80s action movie, as it turns us into the studio audience and makes us root for carnage over anything else.
Atop of racist stereotypes and broad caricatures on display, Schwarzenegger is playing an American here. Yes, his character’s name is Ben Richards and, as it goes in some of his other starring vehicles, we’re not meant to question why the very-Austrian Schwarzenegger is playing an American.
Nevertheless, we know the character type, as Richards is in full Kill n’ Quip mode and a fitting Schwarzenegger role.
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Richard Dawson is first rate as the host of “The People’s Network.” Playing a cross between Vince McMahon and Simon Cowell, Dawson steals the movie and even has a great exit.
After a strong intro, Maria Conchita Alonso’s character becomes a basic damsel in distress Alonso, a dynamic actress, was actually better utilized in the Schwarzenegger-less “Predator 2” (1990).
There’s also Kurt Fuller and New Line Cinema regular and “Insidious” MVP Lin Shaye. Mick Fleetwood (resembling Nicol Williamson) and Dweezil Zappa have early cameo appearances and are fun to watch acting alongside Schwarzenegger.
Jesse “The Body” Ventura shows up doing Hulk Hogan’s schtick and, just in case the talent list wasn’t wild enough, Paula Abdul did the choreography.
“The Running Man” sure wants to be “RoboCop,” as the omnipresent ICS channel that airs The Running Man game show is to this world what OCP is to “RoboCop” (in fact, both were released the same summer). Despite how silly this is, it surprisingly gets a lot right about Reality Television.
It’s also campy, very ’80s and really bloody for a 1987 R-rating.
While too dumb and silly to succeed as satire, it’s involving and grasps the narrative pull of a corporation’s ability to pull in and maintain a grasp on the masses.
Another touch I appreciated: De Souza is correct in assuming that 2017 TV executives wouldn’t know what “Gilligan’s Island” or Mr. Spock is.
The fanatical devotion towards Reality TV depicted here reminded me of the time John Carpenter (no, not the filmmaker) won “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and “American Gladiators,” “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” pointed to Reality TV getting really bad, really fast.
Post-“The Truman Show” (1998), it’s not hard to imagine “The Running Man” airing on prime time television, though presumably with a lower body count…for now.
Det. Starsky-turned-director Glaser’s direction is TV-ready, including scenes ending with cuts to exteriors, like a TV show after a commercial break. Glaser’s only directorial credit after this was, of all things, the Shaquille O’Neal genie comedy, “Kazaam!” (1996).
In Schwarzenegger’s 2012 autobiography, “Total Recall: My Unbelievably True-Life Story” (spoiler: the title does not lie), he complained over Glaser’s handling of the sensational material and expressed unhappiness that the original director, Andrew Davis (who later directed Schwarzenegger in the 2002 “Collateral Damage”) was replaced.
Schwarzenegger’s dismissive assessment of the film isn’t entirely fair. While not a classic and or on the level of either “The Terminator” (1984) or “Predator,” “The Running Man” is basically “The Most Dangerous Game” crossed with “Rollerball” plus a dash of “Escape from New York.”
While it’s easy to pick on the casting of Schwarzenegger as the very-American Ben Richards and the star’s struggles with English were present at this point, this isn’t a bad vehicle nor a career misstep.
“The Running Man” didn’t earn the respect of James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984) but it was a hit and another title that pushed the star towards his trajectory with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991).
Most wouldn’t consider Schwarzenegger an actor, but he would prove everyone wrong. He wound up having an unexpected flair for comedy (“Twins,” “Kindergarten Cop,” the weird but watchable “Junior” and especially “True Lies”) and drama (while little seen, Schwarzenegger’s performance in the “Maggie” is as understated and remarkable as the film itself).
The former Mr. Universe is such a compelling screen presence that, even in movies like this, he makes his casting work. Few movie stars can pull that off.
Harold Faltermeyer’s John Carpenter-esque score is a big plus. The third act is crass and silly, as the heavies are all attired like “Mad Max” villains. It’s all very WWF, particularly the Iron Sheik and Junkyard Dog era.
If only the fight scenes weren’t so clunky.
Considering that this came out in the era of Morton Downey Jr., the chair toss at Geraldo Rivera, but before decades of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich chaos, the depiction that the most blood thirsty gladiators are the audience members was dead on, then and now.
The film’s biggest achievement is that it makes the point that the real savagery is in the live studio audience. If “Network” (1976) was the prophetic, intellectual take on this premise and “The Truman Show” (1998) is the gentle allegory of how TV shapes the lives of its watchers and products, then “The Running Man” could be just a few years ahead of being the real thing.
I hope that’s not true, but it certainly looks like ICS-like sweeps week mayhem is right around the corner…if it hasn’t arrived already.