Just over a week ago I watched Mad Max Fury Road and now all action films have been ruined for me. Modern ones at least. I feel the need to watch films that feel more real and less like computer puppets being flung around a photo composite diorama. I need to see real stunts and real explosions. Maybe even some blood flying that wasn’t filmed in a small studio separate from the actors. For whatever reason I chose to watch The Running Man. It wasn’t a bad choice I suppose.
I’m not sure how this happened but somehow Arnold Schwarzenegger became lead star for 80s science fiction action films. You may think that’s crazy talk but in the course of a few years he was in Terminator, Predator, The Running Man and Total Recall. Even Twins is a sci-fi film technically. These films all hold merit in one way or the other but one is, maybe, a little lower on the quality rungs. Also, I’m not counting Twins. So yeah… The Running Man it is. The story revolves around a dystopian future where a man framed for a massacre he didn’t commit escapes from prison only to wind up in a very deadly game show. Arnie is Ben Richards. Another mountain of a man with a Germanic accent that no-one ever brings up.
The plot is basic stuff. Like, really basic. But, to its credit, it does actually manage that little thing called subtext that many films lack these days. Essentially Ben shows that, despite the complete rule of the government the brainwashing isn’t complete on ever citizen. He sides with a rebellion, led by Mick Fleetwood in old man make-up, to bring down the totalitarian regime. By the way, the leader of the rebellion isn’t just being played by Mick Fleetwood. It’s actual Mick Fleetwood. At least that’s what has been suggested before by people that worked on the film. Apparently he started the rebellion after all his music was banned. That should have been in the film. It’s batshit crazy and awesome. The film is laced with anti-authority messages aimed at resisting being forced to believe what is fed to you. That sort of subtext could be useful these days as the outright lies presented on TV news shows and newspapers are becoming easier and easier to unravel with the speed at which information can spread.
So yeah, a little subtext is a nice thing. The rest of the film is mostly just macho bullshit and light comedy. There’s also a hell of a lot of pop culture references which were not really common back in 1987. Some films would drop the odd one here or there but The Running Man is constantly dropping Star Trek quotes and even has Dweezil Zappa echoing his father Frank with the line “Don’t touch that dial”. In some ways it makes this feel a little more like a film made around now than you’d usually get. Granted, the weird costumes that the Stalkers (The game shows version of the Gladiators sent to hunt the contestants) wear look very much out of the 80s, but as far as dystopic futures go it’s really not that far removed from where we are now. Police opening using aggression and militarised force on crowds. Exploitative TV shows made for people to gawp at. Human rights violating prisons. There’s also a scene where Arnie buys a plane ticket to Hawaii using a little computer box in the living room of an apartment. This film is set 4 years from now and they really kinda nailed it.
The Running Man gameshow itself is presented by actual real life gameshow host, and occasional actor, Richard Dawson. His performance here is probably what holds the film together. He’s slimy, egotistical, power mad and a general all round dick. Apparently Richard Dawson was quite a lot like this character in real life. Probably how he came across so perfectly in the role. It takes a certain type of nastiness to make the audience root against an old man when he’s up against Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, if you thought about an in his prime Arnie beating up an old guy, that’s kinda horrible. But when that old guy is Dawson’s Damon Killian, you kinda let it go and hope he gets blown up somehow. Spoilers: he does. Because it’s the 80s and of course he gets blown up.
There’s a hell of a lot to enjoy in The Running Man. A cool setting. Weird villains… one of them is an opera singing man that fires lightening from his fingertips. Arnie busting out one liners at somewhere around 4 per minute. What doesn’t help the film is the fairly flat shooting style. It’s all a bit basic and unadventurous. This could be due to it being directed by actual Detective Dave Starsky himself Paul Michael Glaser. He only has a few film directing credits… one of which is Kazaam… Oh man, Kazaam. I’ll get to that one day. Mostly Glaser directs TV though. There’s a different scope and dynamic visual range to film that wasn’t possible on TV back then and you can see that he really doesn’t get it. The film looks like a high budget TV production. There’s a few nice visual touches such as well done matte paintings and stylish lighting in the Running Man’s arena, but this is undermined by lots of flat colours and choppy action scenes.
There’s also a couple of weird story issues. Former Governor of Minnesota Jesse “The Body” Ventura plays a former Stalker from the gameshow with the brilliantly ironic name of Captain Freedom. The film keeps hinting and building towards him getting into the arena as Arnie offs all the Stalkers sent after him. In the end Captain Freedom gets called up, he doesn’t like his new costume and the direction of the show, citing that there’s no honour anymore… and then he vanishes. We only see him when Killian has his production team make a computer generated fight to show Captain Freedom killing Arnie and his love interest Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso). That’s not a conclusion. He doesn’t even turn up at the end to help or hinder Arnie’s assault on the TV station. There’s also a scene where Amber has to remember the passcodes for a transmitter. She makes a mistake when relaying them back, setting up a potential moment of tension later where she’d have to remember them. That never happens. She just says she has the codes and in the next scene everyone is geared up for combat. We didn’t even get a gearing up montage!
The Running Man has a certain amount of charm to it that can definitely warrant it having a fairly strong fanbase. It would be totally justified. But this is on the lesser side of the Arnold Schwarzenegger heyday films. It’s no Total Recall, Terminator or Predator that’s for sure. It’s not even stupid enough or poorly made enough to be a amazing a viewing experience as the masterpiece which is Commando. It is fun though. I’d generally say any film that has an exploding head 10 minutes in is probably going in the right direction. I wonder if Paul Michael Glaser thought that head explosion would outdo the one in Scanners? It’s not that good. Funny though. Where was I? Oh yeah, The Running Man is fun but quite a mess of a film. It’s campy and silly and should be appreciated on exactly that level.