The Film: The Running Man (1987)
The Principals: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, Yaphet Kotto. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser. Written by Steven E. de Souza (based on the book by Stephen King).
The Premise: Set in a dystopic totalitarian future, when police officer Ben Richards (Ah’nold) refuses an order to fire into a crowd of peaceful protesters he is arrested and framed for the slaughter (which occurs anyway, despite his objections). Too badass to be held even by crazy futuristic prisons, Richards escapes and goes on the lamb. In doing so he catches the eye of Damon Killian (Dawson), the host of the most popular program in the country, “The Running Man,” a sadistic game show that pits convicts against a series of “Stalkers.” Victory for a “Runner” means freedom. Failure means death at the hands of a Stalker. Long story short, Richards becomes entangled with a woman (Alonso) he takes hostage and is caught by the authorities, who hand him over to Killian. Now Richards must play the game.
Is It Good: Good? Maybe not. But it is ridiculous fun. The Running Man is a weird ass movie, and it is designed seemingly around the prominent 1980’s principle that being iconic is of greater importance than being conventionally “good” – just like Arnold himself. This is probably Arnold’s most gonzo film, next to Total Recall (it’s impossible to compete with Verhoeven’s mad genius). And it is on this level that it succeeds. With flying colors.
Taking pretty much only the title from Stephen King’s book (originally published under King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman), and the vaguest semblance of the premise, almost every moment of The Running Man explodes with bright memorably cheesy glory. From Arnold’s terrible fake beard, to the prison’s head-exploding security collars, to bizarre cameos by Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa, to the commercials of other ridiculous game shows, to his creepy rapist demeanor with Maria Conchita Alonso, to stabbing a lawyer in the back with a pen after signing his “The Running Man” contract… the list goes on. And this all happens before Arnold even enters the game.
The casting of “The Running Man” crew is frankly rather inspired. Getting Richard Dawson, who had completely given up acting in the 1970’s to become the host of Family Feud, to play the unctuous and sinister Killian is fucking brilliant. And the dude kills the part, smarming up the scenery with savory glee, playing against his beloved persona. All the Stalkers are great: 80’s/early 90’s action staple Professor Toru Tanaka as Subzero. Gus Rethwisch bringing madcap roid fury to Buzzsaw. Erland van Lidth’s Lite Bright clad, opera singing Dynamo, the most conceptually insane of all the Stalkers. NFL and James-Toback-partying-partner legend Jim Brown as Fireball. And giving the film’s juiciest performance of all, Jesse Venture hamming the fuck out of Captain Freedom.
Then, of course, there is Arnold. This may have some of the best uses of Arnold’s signature vocalization – Nyagh! – which he uses to express various emotions, such as “pain” “agony” “frustration” and “physical exertion.” The Running Man came out right as Arnold was about to hit his apex; it followed Predator, then the following year Twins came out, and Arnold’s career went supernova. Now your mom liked him too. This and 1988’s Red Heat were to be the last of his smaller, off-beat films – until his career bottomed out in the 90’s, that is.
Is It Worth A Look: You either like Arnold or you don’t. He is admittedly an acquired taste. As much as his contemporaneous detractors were puzzled by his popularity, I have to image future generations will be even more perplexed, viewing films like The Running Man twenty years from now. But I love the big goon. Well, I love 1982-1994 Arnold. If you are a new Arnold fan and somehow haven’t found your way to this film, get on that shit.
Random Anecdote: Director Paul Michael Glaser was quite famous in 1987. But not as a director. He was famous for playing Det. Dave Starsky on TV’s Starsky and Hutch. Somehow a series of television directing gigs on shows like Miami Vice and Amazing Stories lead him to The Running Man. Glaser followed the success of this film with the lady-favorite The Cutting Edge. Then, sadly, his film career was permanently skullfucked by the shame that was Shaquille O’Neal’s Kazaam.