The Running Man

Wisecracking satire of capitalism and game shows. Pure action-oriented fun.

Released in 1987, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 31 Jul 2003 by Scott Morris
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It's been a while since I last watched this, and it staggers me to realise the oddity of the cast and crew on display here. The director's name, Paul Michael Glaser might not be familiar to everyone but his alter ego of 70's self-styled supercop Starsky of Starsky and Hutch fame . Jesse Ventura is a wrestling legend and firm Arnie favourite, also appearing in Batman & Robin and the slightly better Predator. Frank Zappa's son Dweezil is here, as is Rock & Roll hall of famer and Fleetwood Mac lynchpin Mick Fleetwood. Ex-NFL fullback Jim Brown is a B-movie mainstay, up to and including Mars Attacks!. This is an eclectic selection, and it's perhaps this bizarre mix of people from various disciplines that give The Running Man it's charm.

The story has been adapted from the talentless hack Steven King's novel by Steven E. de Souza. De Souza's screenplays over the span of his career have so far pulled in over $2 billion. Wowser. It's fair to say that his success is variable, starting with TV shows such as Knight Rider before writing some exceptionally enjoyable stuff such as 48 Hours, Commando and the first two Die Hards. Balancing this is the far less successful The Flintstones, Hudson Hawk, Beverly Hills Cop 3 (urgh), Judge Dredd (which I like, but I'm in the minority) and the completely indefensible Street Fighter. The Running Man however is a very well-observed bit of sci-fi that has influenced not only other movies but game shows themselves over the years.

Set in the future, the world has gone to the dogs for the majority of the people, while the rich wallow in luxury. Ben Richards (our Arn) is an army helicopter pilot, ordered to fire on a group of rioting, starving civilians trying to get access to food. He refuses this direct order, but is quickly subdued by his fellow army boys and a slaughter is undertaken. On regaining consciousness, he's surprised to find himself framed for this atrocity, complete with doctored news footage of him gleefully killing these innocents. He's thrown in the slammer.

You can't keep Ah-nold down for long however, and it's not long before he's busting out of jail aided by two resistance fighters, Laughlin(Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre). Notable here are the exploding collars to prevent straying from designated areas, resulting in an unfortunate height reduction for one unfortunate fellow running off before Weiss lowers the force field. On decamping the prison, the resistance movement remove Richard's collar and he goes off on his merry way, refusing the chance to join their cause. Richards heads off to his brothers apartment, only to find he isn't there any more.

Amber Mendes (Maria Conchita Alonso) is however. Though understandably surprised and upset by the sudden appearance of the Butcher of Bakersfield in her apartment, she's in no position to win a fistfight with an Arnie at pretty much the peak of his physical condition during his film career. It's astonishing to think he was 40 while making this film, although not as astonishing as his physique at his current years. Anyhow, in The Running Man Arnie looks like he could easily rip off your head and spit down your neck should he have the passing fancy to do so.

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Richards uses Amber's cash and passes to arrange a flight out of the country, kidnapping Amber into the bargain as cover. The antagonism between the two manifests itself in the form of some absolutely classic Arnie one-liners and to-and-fros, all accompanied by an utterly horrendous Hawaiian shirt. It's so astonishingly yucky that it's even mentioned in the script, Amber threatening to throw up on Richards because she gets travel-sick. Arnie's simple response - On this shirt it won't show. She manages to eventually distract Arnie and escape, leading to his recapture.

He's not sent back to prison though, as he has caught the eye of top-rated game show host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson). His game show The Running Man takes convicted criminals with the blessing of the Justice Department and runs them through a 400 city-block gauntlet, dodging gimmicked stalkers sent out to kill them in the ruined game area. He isn't given much of a choice in the matter, and the recaptured Laughlin and Weiss are roped into it as well. After seeing some exaggerated news reports of Richards misdeeds during his bid for freedom, Amber has an attack of morality and seeks out the original, unaltered footage of the Bakersfield Massacre, proving Richard's innocence. She's spotted though, and thrown into the killing fields.

They are pursued by a variety of uniquely styled stalkers with equally interesting methods of attempting to dispatch the runners. Sub Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka) has to be the most contrived one, essentially an ice-hockey player with a very sharp stick. Thankfully the runners have to go through an ice-rink, otherwise he'd have trouble running after them in his ice-skates. Dynamo is a tubby, opera singing goof with what seems to be one of Quake's lightning guns. To show how futuristic and hi-tech everything is he's got LED's flashing and blinking all over his chest plate. Buzzsaw is almost conventional, with a mere motorbike and chainsaw, but it's clear that it was only saving the ridiculousicity quotient for Fireball (Jim Brown), who gets not only a flamethrower but a bloody jetpack. It's clear by the entrance of the first of these jokers that this has lost any semblance of reality and choose to run with it's cheesy game show vibe, constantly intercut with Damon's antics and patronizing the studio audience. Though dated, it does a tremendous job of feeling like a Saturday evening game show, and surely that's the point.

The film distills to Richards vs. the stalkers, with Weiss and Laughlin trying to find the studios uplink satellite so they can take over the airwaves and broadcast the truth. To be brutally honest, the actions scenes are good but not spectacular, especially compared to today's wire-fu obsessed flicks. Strangely this becomes one of its strengths, as I'm a little sick of watch people gracefully float about countering each other. If you want to see people brutally smacking each other in the face before chopping them up with a chainsaw ("I love this saw.. this saw's a part of me.. and I'm going to make it a part of YOU!"), Arnie films should suit you to a tee.

Dawson plays Killian with just the right degree of two-faced smarm and nastiness to have you rooting for his inevitable Arnie-inflicted death as Richards takes command of the resistance force taking over the studio. While this film isn't going to win any awards for its acting performances, there's only a few points that it becomes grating. McIntyre has few roles as Weiss, but these see particularly flat and uninspired. Alonso can be a little irritating for the first half of the movie with her continual whining, but Ah-nold is normally quick enough to shut her up with another put-down or threat ("Remember, I can snap your neck like a chickens!").

Arnie himself is about as good as he's ever been outside of his iconic Terminator role, revelling in some of the better cheesy one-liners of his career. Indeed, the only time he looks weak is when they fall flat, such as his declaration after killing him that Sub Zero is now Plain Zero. Perfectly cast is regular Arnie favourite Jesse Ventura as Captain Freedom, a retired stalker and now locker-room reporter who's one of the only characters that is allowed to get frustrated as Killians self-promoting pomposity. His reaction to the ludicrous new costume thrown together for his return to active stalking is priceless.

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This is a great example of how to do a sci-fi action flick where it's based on a plausible extension of the current world, contains some clever ideas but doesn't labour them enough to get in the way of the action. This is something The Matrix shared, and it's laudable because it creates a far bigger cross-audience who might not normally consider watching anything as geeky as sci-fi. The only issues they are likely to have is that something ain't quite right with the future.

Totalitarian states, riots, police using terminal force, governments reliant on the media to pacify people, increasingly bloodthirsty TV and punishments - all these are reasonable sci-fi, although nothing startlingly innovative. It allows for some great throwaway concepts that aren't dwelled on to any extent, things like Richards having a court appointed theatrical agent before entering the game and the Department Of Justice having an Entertainment division. All this remains believable because they're concepts, not material. Due to budgetary constraints though, the material looks positively retro.

This film is obviously a child of the eighties. The hair, the clothes, the music, the speech, the technology, - everything screams 'Eighties!', which immediately puts it at a disadvantage when it's asking people to believe that it's 2030-odds. It's touching that they've tried though. For example, Amber wanders back into to her home near the start of the film and barks instructions into the kitchen area, asking for the lights to go on (easy enough) and for a cup of coffee. A coffee machine grinds into action, but it's a machine that would have been picked up from Argos in 1987, immediately ruining the effect.

This will spoil it for some people. Not me. This isn't a terribly serious film. It's difficult to take even Arnie as a credible threat when he's running around in a lurid yellow skin-tight jumpsuit. This film is about revelling in his one-liners and enjoying some utterly ridiculous action scenes. The effects suffer with the meagre budget allocated, but for the most part they're serviceable. There's a tremendous amount of camp value in this film from start to finish, a bizarre combination of WWF and The Price Is Right. This film is obviously a child of the eighties, and I love it for it.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Paul Michael Glaser
Cast list:
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Ben Richards)
Maria Conchita Alonso (Amber Mendez)
Yaphet Kotto (Laughlin)
Jim Brown (Fireball)
Jesse Ventura (Capt. Freedom)
Erland van Lidth (Dynamo)
Marvin J. McIntyre (Weiss)
Gus Rethwisch (Buzzsaw)
Professor Toru Tanaka (Subzero)
Mick Fleetwood (Mic)
Dweezil Zappa (Stevie)
Richard Dawson (Damon Killian)