The Running Man (1987)

The Running Man

Tagline: Welcome to America in 2019, when the best men don’t run for president, they run for their lives.

Director: Paul Michael Glaser 

Writer: Steven E. de Souza

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson, Yaphet Kotto, Marvin J. McIntyre, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, Erland van Lidth, Gus Rethwisch, Professor Toru Tanaka, Mick Fleetwood, Sven-Ole Thorsen

18 | 1hr 41min | Action/Sci-fi

Budget: $27,000,000 (estimated)


By 1987, Arnold Schwarzenegger was well on his way to becoming the world’s most recognised superstar. 

Following on from mainstream success as James Cameron‘s cyborg assassin The Terminator, a pumped-up Arnie would land money-spinning leads in movies such as Commando and Predator, quickly becoming an icon in both the action and sci-fi genres. By the time Schwarzenegger played Ben Richards in The Running Man, a plethora of action-packed features were being put into production with the actor specifically in mind, while long-time writer Steven E. De Souza began churning out the kind of inane one-liners that made his wooden performances not only passable, but iconic. 

The problem with a winning formula like this is that studios become lazy, safe in the knowledge that they are bound to do big numbers at the box office while demanding more of the same. Because of this, movies become tediously formulaic, burdened with the kind of contrivances that lead to an almost creative regression, or at the very least stagnation. This is very much apparent in The Running Man, which conceptually has so much potential, but even with Arnie at the helm and a license to print tickets, the movie seems decidedly low-key, and as a platform for serious speculative fiction it seems like something of a wasted opportunity.

The Running Man 1987

2019 would see amazing advances in computer technology.

It’s not all bad. In fact, it’s really quite special as the film retains a kitsch charm thanks to the kind of McBain-style self-parody that would soon resonate throughout modern culture, and while its vision of a futuristic 2019 remains very firmly in the mid-80’s, it is a wonderful time capsule into the cheapo charm of a period when bigger was better, and as a consequence more advanced. For my money, no other mainstream movie sums up the VHS era quite like The Running Man, and in spite of its idle gimmicks and hackneyed play on dystopia, there is much to appreciate here, particularly for pop culture aficionados with a penchant for the garishly absurd.

The movie is loosely based on Richard Bachman’s novel of the same name. Bachman was the one time pseudonym of prolific horror writer Stephen King, and for those of you who have read the book you will know that, although sharing the movie’s sense of irony as a satire on the modern media, it is a much grittier tale of poverty and desperation where contestants are not only pursued by bounty hunters but by a starving public seeking rewards for locating the hit TV show’s targets. In the novel, Ben Richards is just another jobless sickie risking his life for the welfare of his family ― a rather astute commentary on the presidency of one Ronald Reagan.

The Running Man Guard

Take off your mask! I can’t hear a damn word you’re saying!

With no desire to ruffle any such feathers, director Paul Michael Glaser ― a last minute replacement for original director Andrew Davis ―  takes a more tepid and politically friendly approach to the source material, one of absurd caricatures and cost-effective ambitions. Instead of taking place on the streets of the United States, The Running Man show is confined to the dungeons of a TV studio, and the stalkers are larger-than-life characters who are something akin to the good old days of American pro wrestling. The show’s ‘runners’ are not starving people suffering under the boot of private power, but ex-cons looking for freedom and a handsome payday ― at least that is the claim of entertainment conglomerate ICS Studios and their nationwide propaganda model.

A former army general and scapegoat for the ‘Bakersfield massacre’ ― a government act in which thousands of starving civilians were cruelly gunned down ― Richards escapes a labour-intensive prison camp and seeks out The Resistance, a rebellious group living in the shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. Inevitably, it isn’t long before Richards and his buddies are picked up by ruthless television personality and Running Man host Killian, a ratings-obsessed slimeball who feeds on the adulation of the masses while sending innocent men to their onscreen demise. He even finds a place on his show for sexy ICS employee Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso), whose time as a hostage of Richards is enough to convince her of the network’s manipulations. Killian is played by a wonderfully malevolent Richard Dawson, whose time as a real-life host proves the movie’s masterstroke; Dawson is a revelation who lends the movie the spark that is otherwise missing. 

The Running Man Shoot

Man, I knew I should have taken a dump while I still had the chance!

The Running Man works best as the kind of gaudy spectacle that leaves all plausibility gasping in its wake, but there are a few Vernhoeven-style quirks along the way, which along with a plethora of puns keeps the movie ticking as it sprints through a mercifully succinct by-the-numbers set-up. Highlights include former pro wrestler turned Governor Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura as a retired stalker and host of Captain Freedom’s Workout, while another ICS show Climbing for Dollars sees men scurrying in search of cold, hard cash as rabid dobermans bay viciously for their blood and gas-spraying booby traps threaten to turn them into dog meat. 

The movie’s main event is reminiscent of a Nintendo video game as a gang of network stalkers are set loose on our fleeing protagonists. Characters such as Buzzsaw, Sub-Zero, and Fireball possess the kind of deadly gadgets that have transformed them into prime time superstars, while an opera singing stalker name Dynamo is surely just played for laughs. Of course, they didn’t bank on Arnie and his plethora of acerbic one-liners, and soon the Network are bargaining with their latest contestant after he acquires the uplink code that could potentially jam the network’s satellites and reveal ICS as the lying miscreants they are. But when you’re audience are a a gang of bloodthirsty sadists with a taste for TV-bound genocide, you kind of question the point of it all. 

The Running Man Captain Freedom

By 2019, cyborgs would also become a reality.

Best Kill

After tussling with ice-skating assassin Professor Sub Zero, Arnie leads the Asian mammoth formerly known as Oddjob on an ice-bound goose chase before wrapping a length of razor wire around his neck and turning it into duck liver Pâté.   

Most Absurd Moment

Okay, so Ben Richards was set up after the Bakersfield Massacre footage was doctored by the powers that be. But why would they film the massacre in the first place if their aim was to keep it a secret? And how were they able to shoot the scene from multiple angles from what appears to be several different cameras? There is even a Richards POV shot and shots from outside the helicopter where the fracas took place.

Futuristic technology, I suppose.

Most Absurd Stalker

Referred to as ‘light bulb’ by the impossibly witty Richards, Dynamo is a big fatty in a suit of armour made entirely of Christmas lights. Never convincing in his ability to move, let alone fight, Dynamo spends half of the movie in a giant pair of underpants, while his stalking endeavours consist of driving up a 90 degree hill in his electric kart and landing at the mercy of Richards. Later, after trying once again to have his wicked way with the delectable Amber Mendez, Dynamo is electrocuted after the sprinkler system rains on his brightly-coloured parade.  

A dipshit of the highest order.

Best Arnie Pun

After tussling with a steroid-pumped, chainsaw-wielding Buzzsaw, Richards gets into a test of strength which ends with the weapon being jammed into our antagonist’s nether regions. With Buzzsaw’s weightlifting belt now split down the middle, Amber enquires about the monster’s whereabouts:

Amber Mendez: What happened to Buzzsaw?

Ben Richards: He had to split.

Most Absurd Dialogue

After watching Richards marched through the ICS studios to his televised fate, a startled Amber is comforted by gossiping colleague Amy.

Amy: You’re lucky he didn’t kill you, too. Or rape you, then kill you. Or kill you, then rape you.

Very lucky!

Revival Rating

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The peripheral plot is vapid at best, while clunky costumes and uninspired special effects create a 2019 that is very much grounded in the 1980’s, but while the The Running Man‘s dystopian gimmicks are largely hackneyed, there are moments of razor-sharp satire on offer, and its extreme vision of media-driven indoctrination is perhaps more relevant than ever. Also, pay close attention to Harold Faltermeyer’s original score, a seething rock-synth classic that grows richer with every listen.


Cedric Smarts
: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director

Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut


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2 responses to “The Running Man (1987)

  1. Ah, the 80s! You are so right, CJ. The Running Man while in the future is firmly entrenched in the neon glitz of the Reagan years. Like you said, it is formulaic and showy but you can still appreciate it. Very well done retrospective!


  2. I have watched this movie so many times I have simply lost count. Absolutely love it, regardless of its inherent laziness. The soundtrack is killer too, a fine blend of wretched dystopia and 80s synth rock. Harold Faltermeyer at his absolute best.


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