Before “The Real World”, before “Big Brother”, Paul Michael Glaser offered us a look at what reality TV might one day become with his film The Running Man, loosely based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King (written under his pseudonym – Richard Bachman).
There’s very little in common between the novel and the movie beyond the character’s name and the concept of a show called The Running Man where contestants are hunted down. Unlike the movie, which is set in a confined arena, contestants in the novel can travel anywhere in the world to try and avoid being found. The novel is worth a look in its own right, but today we are here to discuss the film version.
It is the (then) futuristic year 2017 and the world is a very different place. The USA has become a totalitarian state where riots for food are commonplace and many people live in abject poverty and near-starvation. A panacea is offered to the public in the form of the ludicrously successful TV show The Running Man where criminals fight for their lives as they are pursued by heavily armed “Stalkers” out to kill them, every moment filmed and broadcast live on TVs and public screens around the world. Seeking a boost to stagnating ratings the head of the show, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), goes hunting for the next big thing and thinks he’s found it in Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a disgraced cop accused of murdering civilians. Thrown into the arena with only the clothes on his back and help from two companions who helped him break out of prison, Richards must fight to stay alive and perhaps even clear his name.
Some comparisons could also be drawn to another action movie – Robot Jox, which came out two years later. Another dystopian future with people living in abject poverty, only here the TV everyone watches are the Robot Jox fights, again with massive public screens and scenes of frantic bets being taken on the outcome of each match though in this film the themes are more centered around the cold war and Russian/US relations.
The Running Man is a beautiful satire of not only the reality TV genre before it even really existed, but of the attitudes of TV watchers to what happens on their screens and the willingness and ability of those in power to twist the “facts” to fit whatever narrative they see fit. Long before the term “fake news” was coined, we had the machinations of ICS, willing to do whatever it takes in the pursuit of ratings. In a world of social media scams and misinformation the themes on display here are more relevant than ever.
But an action movie has to be more than just themes, and here The Running Man delivers in spades with memorable one-liners, unique and interesting villains in the shape of the Stalkers, who range from “Subzero” who dresses like an ice hockey goalkeeper and kills with a razor sharp hockey stick, to Dynamo who wears mock-Roman armour covered in flashing lights and kills by throwing lightning bolts. This film is Schwarzenegger at his action movie peak. Coming out the same year as The Predator, Schwarzenegger delivers what the audience wants. Fighting, grunting, punching, thick accents and only the finest of corny one-liners.
Serving as his main foil in this is Richard Dawson as the host and compère of The Running Man – Damon Killian, a perfect amalgamation of every game show host you’ve ever seen, but also a man who doesn’t bat an eye at lying, cheating, stealing and sending people out to die as long as it keeps the fans interested and keeps his show on top. He steals every scene he’s in through sheer charisma and presence. Supporting roles are taken up by Yaphet Kotto (Alien, Live & Let Die), Marvin J McIntyre (Short Circuit, Pale Rider) and Maria Conchita Alonso (Predator 2) who all turn in solid performances.
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Soundtrack duties here fell to Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Tango & Cash) who gives us a soundtrack that is pure 1980s, with heavy use of synths, drums and wailing guitars. It’s in perfect keeping with the feel of the movie and still stands on its own as a glorious piece of music nostalgia.
While much of the technology on display in the film has aged poorly, with CRT screens on display everywhere, staff carrying clipboards and nary a mobile phone to be seen anywhere, this is still a wonderfully entertaining entry in Schwarzenegger’s extensive filmography and one that any self-respecting action movie fan should take the time to watch.
Are you a fan of The Running Man? Let us know.