The Running Man (1987)

I remember watching this movie many, many years ago at a time when I had a particular fascination with dystopian fiction. For whatever reason, I couldn’t really get into it back then, but I decided to take another chance when I found it on a recent free weekend of Showtime.

This 1987 film is very loosely based on the eponymous novel written by Stephen King under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. It is set in Southern California primarily in—wait for it—2019(!!!), and follows Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a Bakersfield police helicopter pilot framed for a massacre during a food riot nearly two years earlier. He is ultimately coerced into participating in an extremely popular state television game show, also called THE RUNNING MAN, hosted by Damon Killian (none other than Richard Dawson, who had just come off the original run of FAMILY FEUD a few years earlier).

Rounding out the cast is Amber Mendez (María Conchita Alonso), a state television composer—and no, we don’t actually get to hear her works—who ultimately becomes Ben’s ally after realizing her employer had falsified his misdeeds; Fleetwood Mac drummer and co-founder Mick Fleetwood as, well, “Mic” (pronounced exactly like his real name, go figure), the leader of a resistance camp; Professor Toru Tanaka as Subzero, one of the game show’s “stalkers” sent out to hunt down the “runner” contestants; and Jesse Ventura in a rather shoddy wig as “Captain Freedom,” a retired stalker and television personality who evokes almost as much of a “heel” persona here as he did in the World Wrestling Federation at the time. Paul Michael Glaser—best known for playing Detective David Starsky on the TV series STARSKY AND HUTCH—initially declined to direct the film because he felt there wasn’t enough pre-production time, but he ultimately signed on after original director Andrew Davis was fired when the film fell behind schedule.

If there is one film that epitomizes ’80s futuristic dystopian action cheese in all of its enjoyable glory and all of its equally enjoyable flaws, it is THE RUNNING MAN. Schwarzenegger may be the star of the movie and may have his share of infamously cringeworthy one-liners, but Dawson also steals the show whenever he’s on-screen with a wonderfully antagonistic charisma. Of course, with the neon-happy production design, quintessentially tacky and usually Lycra-based wardrobes (particularly the stalkers, all of whom clearly look like WWF rejects with their crazy gimmicks!), an ironically television show-esque manner of cinematography (something which Schwarzenegger argues hurt the film and “[lost] all the deeper themes” in a 2012 memoir), an electronic score by Harold Faltermeyer (of BEVERLY HILLS COP and TOP GUN fame) which even incorporates W. Carlos-style interpretations of classical music themes, and dance choreography by Paula Abdul to top it all off, it’s even more laughable in the actual year of 2019 to watch than it must have been in 1987. And yet, it manages to get at least one prediction right, perhaps the most important one: the proliferation of, and as the New York Post put it, “societal obsession” with, reality television—and it’s one that isn’t going away anytime soon.

As an aside, a company called Braveworld Productions co-produced this film, but the only other film they were involved in was the 1988 Richard Gere vehicle MILES FROM HOME. So, my own Braveworld [Entertainment] really doesn’t have to worry at this point.