The Running Man (1987)
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson, Jesse Ventura.
Plot: In a dystopian future where convicted criminals must fight to the death in a live game show called ‘The Running Man’, Ben Richards, a man wrongly convicted of a shooting massacre, must fight to survive and prove his innocence.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has found his way onto So Bad it’s Good again; but for the record, let me state that I am a huge fan of Schwarzenegger and consider him one of my childhood heroes. While I may not consider the majority of his films to be masterpieces, they are still fantastic pieces of 80s and 90s entertainment which have become iconic in the world of cinema.
The Running Man is set in a future, totalitarian world of 2017 where the world’s biggest TV show is ‘The Running Man’, a game show where convicted criminals get the chance to be pardoned by the government in exchange for fighting to the death against heavily armed soldiers, known as ‘stalkers’, each with their own gimmick . One of the stalkers is called ‘Sub-Zero’ because he dresses up in ice hockey gear and has his own ice-rink-themed dueling arena; another is called ‘Buzzsaw’ because his weapon of choice is a saw, and; another stalker is called ‘Fireball’ which doesn’t need an explanation. Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is a former police officer and helicopter pilot who was framed for the murder of a massive group of rioting civilians after he initially refused to open fire on them. Richards is detained and sent to a labour camp where he spends 18 months before escaping and meeting up with members of ‘the resistance’, an underground group keen on shutting down the totalitarian society America has become. Richards turns down an opportunity to work with the resistance, opting instead to seek out his brother. Richards is, however, later captured by Killian (Dawson) who puts him on The Running Man show.
The Running Man is a classic 80s movie which has everything every action movie should: over-the-top action; ridiculous explosions; graphic violence, and; flamboyant characters. These characteristics make it so enjoyable to watch. It’s fast-paced and full of energy, and rarely does the film fail to maintain its flow and consistency, something a lot of modern action films fail at. The film’s better qualities are completed with a brilliant nostalgic 80s soundtrack that makes it instantly recognisable and gives it that 80s action film ambiance.
Naturally, Schwarzenegger doesn’t give an Oscar-winning performance, but it’s definitely an improvement over the likes of Hercules in New York [that I posted about here, earlier]. His acting is still pretty bad though, and there are certain parts where he really struggles to show any emotion in his lines, but overall it has gotten past laughably bad. Of course, that isn’t to say that it isn’t funny to watch, because it most certainly is.
To cover up his absent acting, Schwarzenegger, like any great 80s action star, makes the film with his one-liners which are automatically more funny and epic when they come out of the Austrian’s mouth. The majority of the lines are ridiculous and cheesy but that’s what makes them great. As long as they are somewhat consistent with what’s going on, it’s absolutely fine, and if you thought you couldn’t use ‘Christmas tree’ as an insult to someone, you probably haven’t seen this film.
Also starring in the film is Richard Dawson who plays the villain, Damon Killian, the big bad corrupt television host of The Running Man who will stop at nothing to see Richards dead. Dawson produces a brilliant performance as Killian, bringing to the table all of the attributes to an 80s villain that makes them so easy to hate, yet loveable at the same time. Dawson delivers a convincing performance as not just a charismatic television presenter, but as the archetypal villain who doesn’t have to be physically empowering to be dominant and intimidating, he just needs to be slick, wealthy and evil.
Despite the film’s poor overall quality and bad reception, there are a lot of strong and important themes which aren’t fully developed, quite clear, or perhaps not taken seriously because of the film’s style and over-the-top action. The Running Man is a show designed to keep the American people in line – it’s symbolic. It represents their freedom under a totalitarian society because in this film there is only an illusion of freedom; nobody truly escapes the iron fist of a totalitarian government. Perhaps the totalitarian society represents communism and the fear of it, which would have been a very real threat to Americans and their freedom during the closing stages of the Cold War in the mid-80s. America has never been shy in expressing their fear of communism through cinema and depicting it as a threat to the American people and their freedom in the most extreme way possible. It’s just the Hollywood way.
Overall The Running Man is a highly entertaining essential 80s action film that had potential to be respected and known as something more than just a cheesy 80s action flick, but is still a thoroughly an enjoyable watch regardless.