Only in a Re-Run: How The Running Man’s Cartoon Dystopia Continues to Grow in Relevance

The Running Man may lack the sobering bite of Stephen King’s source material but its gaudy brand of satire is as fun and relevant as ever


The Running Man proved something of a stutter step in Schwarzenegger’s relentless quest to usurp Stallone as Hollywood’s number one action star, the irony being that the sci-fi genre was ultimately responsible for setting him apart commercially. Thanks to iconic turns in James Cameron’s sci-fi slasher The Terminator and John McTiernan’s audacious genre mash Predator, movies that would forge billion dollar franchises that are still going strong, the man known simply as Arnie was well on his way to becoming the genre’s undisputed alpha male by 1987, something that was solidified by the early 90s after Paul Verhoeven’s bloodthirsty Phillip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall and Cameron’s monumental sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day raked in a combined $780,000,000 worldwide. Stallone would hit back with Marco Brambilla’s dystopian satire Demolition Man in late ’93, but the tide had already turned. Against all odds the Eastern outsider had conquered the American mainstream with his inimitable presence and ability to reel-off droll one-liners.

Former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser’s gaudy sci-fi adaptation was the anomaly in the equation, The Running Man only a moderate success with a worldwide gross of $38,122,000 on a budget of $27,000,000. With Arnie’s mainstream momentum continuing to grow, it was something of a headscratcher, particularly as he’d just begun a high-profile relationship with JFK relative Maria Shiver, his first step to a highly successful career in US politics. It’s not like the film was hammered by critics either. Reviews were mostly middling, The Running Man‘s Blade Runner lite visuals and workmanlike direction offset by its keen self-awareness and scathing satirical flourishes. There was some truth to what was written, the film failing to live up to previous star vehicles, but it’s not like fans were deterred by critics who typically viewed mainstream action fare as being fundamentally beneath them. Less than a year prior, Stallone brought in a whopping $160,000,000 headlining Dirty Harry derivative Cobra, a poxy Cannon Films production that was slaughtered across the board for its spurious eye for an eye politics and featherlight screenplay. Perhaps it all felt just a little half-assed after The Terminator‘s stunningly resourceful visuals and Predator‘s genre savvy, Glaser paling to Cameron and McTiernan, who with films like Aliens and Die Hard established themselves as two of the action genre’s freshest innovators.

Perhaps it was a simple case of a movie failing to live up to its source material. That sounds like crazy talk well into the 21st century, audiences rarely reading the novel upon which a movie is based, but King was an international superstar of the literary world and beyond, becoming the second best-selling author of the 20th century behind only Danielle Steele, a romance novelist who enraptured the bored housewives of America with material that would struggle to light up daytime television. King was as famous in the horror and sci-fi obsessed 80s as any living author, particularly in the realms of Hollywood, an incredible 14 of his works having already been adapted for the screen by Spring of ’87. It may be difficult to fathom in an era of digital distractions and dwindling attention spans, but King’s books were so ubiquitous he would release The Running Man under the pseudonym Richard Bachman to prevent market oversaturation and the prospect of diminishing sales. Even then it was impossible to maintain such a secret when dealing with a high-profile celebrity like King, his real identity leaked less than two years after the release of The Running Man in 1982. By the time news of a blockbuster adaptation hit audiences, Bachman’s cover was well and truly blown.

Even today many feel that The Running Man was a missed opportunity tonally, particularly King himself. Rob Reiner’s classic coming of age drama Stand By Me and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption not withstanding, King has been openly displeased with high-profile adaptations throughout the years, calling Kubrick’s The Shining “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it,” and comparing Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter to a “cafeteria of mashed potatoes.” He would even successfully sue the makers of The Lawnmower Man after claiming that Brett Leonard’s sci-fi sleeper hit bore little-to-no resemblance to his short of the same name. King, who would receive $2,500,000 compensation, would successfully have his name removed from the film’s title. Not since Oliver Curwood had his name removed from 1922’s I Am the Law had such a case been won. Despite his unwillingness to turn down cold, hard cash, King was a notoriously hard man to please when it came to the handling of his material.

I’m not into politics. I’m into survival.

Ben Richards

It’s easy to see why King was so displeased with Glaser’s gaudy Hollywood spectacle. Those who have read the novella will know that, though sharing the movie’s killer sense of irony, it is a much grittier tale of poverty and desperation, depicting a reality-based gameshow in which contestants are not only pursued by bounty hunters beset on celebrity-infused murder, but by a starving public seeking rewards for locating the hit TV show’s targets. In the book, protagonist Ben Richards is just another jobless prole risking life and limb for the welfare of his family ― a rather astute commentary on Reaganite politics that taps into the perverse power of modern celebrity, the divisive nature of the ruling classes and enforced poverty in the so-called democratic world. In the movie, 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 and their nationwide propaganda model, a hatred-baiting studio whose weekend line-up includes the gloriously transparent Climbing for Dollars, a show in which hopeless chancers literally climb for money amid a plethora of deadly booby traps. There’s even a cute nod to the film’s star and real-life talk show host Richard Dawson’s appearance in saccharine romantic comedy series The Love Boat, a poster for the studio’s deeply cynical doppelgänger The Hate Boat hanging proudly in his office. If The Running Man would have been made closer to the book’s release, a time when action movies still possessed the sobering residue of 70s cinema with its post-Watergate sense of paranoia and an emphasis on real-world horrors, it may have been a much more loyal adaptation. Perhaps it was merely a case of bad timing.

Schwarzenegger, an actor with dollar signs for eyeballs, was not best pleased with The Running Man‘s commercial failings, citing the last-minute replacement of original director Andrew Davis as the cause, Glaser initially turning down the gig due to concerns about the film’s insufficient pre-production period, which ironically was the very issue that saw Davis sacked after production quickly ran over schedule. Davis’ vision was much closer to King’s, adopting several of the book’s deeper themes, an approach that was quickly ditched for a much shallower outing in the American Gladiators mode. As Schwarzenegger, who would have been uninspired casting for a film with such tonal aspirations, would lament in his 2012 autobiography Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, “(Glaser) shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” King was just as scathing in his opinion of the film’s commercial model, stating in an interview with Cinefantastique, “It was totally out of my hands. I didn’t have anything to do with the making of it. They obviously saw it as a book that could be adapted to fit an existing Rambo/Terminator kind of model, where you’re able to give Schwarzenegger the tag lines that he’s known for.” King saw nothing but a hackneyed cash-grab more concerned with tapping into commercial trends than fulfilling the novel’s intriguing concept and grounded social commentaries.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another would be that Glaser’s film is a priceless monument to the musclebound 80s and the star who so perfectly embodied it. By 1987, American society was more concerned with larger-than-life superheroes and patriotic fantasies than anything that was even remotely self-critical, and The Running Man ticked all the boxes tonally. Sure, Schwarzenegger’s Richards is a freedom fighter set up by the US government and framed via network propaganda, perhaps a concerted choice on the actor’s part considering his political aspirations and a pledge to branch out into comedy and always play the good guy, but the film offers very little insight beyond its cartoon dystopia, adopting the kind of violent pageantry suited to the pro wrestling-obsessed, arcade shooter driven 80s. The movie would even star World Wrestling Federation icon and future governor of Minnesota, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, a hyperbolic personality who would seek Actor’s Guild security following an acrimonious relationship with wrestling magnate Vince McMahon, one that would see him quit the company following a successful lawsuit regarding unpaid royalties and tape sales. Ventura would even attempt to form a union for wrestlers who were employed as independent contractors to allow the company to swerve financial responsibilities. In The Running Man, his character, Captain Freedom, a former ICS stalker lured out of retirement after our marquee hero makes short work of his colleagues, displays a modicum of honour when asked to take part in the deep fake assassination of Richards and love interest Amber Mendez, his acrimonious relationship with ICS honcho Damon Killian, who treats his steroid-induced warriors like dumb, expendable cattle, somewhat reminiscent of the one Ventura shared with McMahon.

For all its faux-futurist spectacle, clunky costumes and power chord approach to filmmaking, The Running Man is not without its speculative foresight. Despite the kind of garish aesthetics that are very much grounded in the 80s, the film is often an uncanny reflection of modern 21st century life, depicting widespread poverty, financial disparity, an almost complete absence of civil rights and a society consumed by the godlike hand of celebrity and reality TV, which, like The Running Man show, has become a disingenuous, half-staged farce designed to consume minds, sell advertising and ruthlessly shape opinion. 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 crudely constructed shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. When visiting Los Angeles in 2020, I was astonished by the similarities, regular families forced to vacate their homes and live in tents that lined entire city blocks while the very wealthiest saw their riches increase significantly. In 2019, there were more than 60,000 homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Just look at the movie’s opening, post-credit scenes. The similarities are astonishing.

You look pissed, Ben. Believe me, you got every right to be. But hey, will you just let me explain. This is television, that’s all it is. It’s nothing to do with people, it’s to do with the ratings. For fifty years, we’ve told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear… for Christ’s sake, Ben, don’t you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give ’em what they want!

Damon Killian

In a Trumpian era of dwindling healthcare, social media inspired division and economic collapse for those on the fringes of society, The Running Man‘s futuristic vision, backed by a police state mentality that continues to reveal itself in today’s increasingly populist society, presents a world in which truth and morals take a backseat to personal beliefs and hollow victories, where celebrities dish out their own brand of violent justice, judge, jury and executioner. Here, Dawson’s chain-smoking miscreant, further legitimised by deep fake tactics that threaten to jeopardise our freedoms in ways that are unprecedented in 2022, is the face that runs the place, dishing out violent retribution to so-called criminals in the form of The Running Man’s overblown stalkers, a rabble of armed to the teeth monsters so beyond reproach that loitering fans feel blessed when they’re smacked around for no good reason, breaking down as if touched by the divine hand of God. The show’s audience are a nasty rabble too, baying for blood like a media-warped lynch mob. Even when they side with an unstoppable Richards they have murder on the mind, a mood singularly personified by Donna Hardy’s’ Elderly Lady’ and the priceless line, “That boy’s one mean motherfucker!” This is a world that celebrates its social superiors in a way that is self-defeating, sullying the reputation of would-be liberators who, as in the film’s opening sequence, refuse to open fire on the starving masses only to be framed as the perpetrators. In many way, it’s a scarily accurate depiction of early 21st century society.

Inevitably, it isn’t long before Richards and his buddies, having escaped from prison in head-exploding fashion (those neck braces were really something back in 1987), are picked up by ruthless television personality and host of The Running Man, Killian (Dawson), a ratings-obsessed slimeball so enamoured with success that he even resorts to kidnapping and imprisonment in his ceaseless quest for fame and adulation. In a movie of mostly passable performances, Dawson is inspired casting, his real-life onscreen persona the perfect fit for a living, breathing fabrication like Killian. Gameshow hosts, tasked with delivering smiling neutrality, always come across as deeply disingenuous, the imperfections within rarely glimpsed, but when it comes to fame and fortune decadence and debauch are never too far away. Killian is the very embodiment of the corruptive nature of power. When, early in the film, he ruthlessly fires an aging janitor over an incident with a mop, he immediately reveals his true colours and the hypocrisy of his product, smilingly reassuring the poor bloke that there’s nothing to worry about before promptly turning to stone. Like many celebrities caught in a bubble of power and privilege, ego reveals itself like a spiteful tongued Hydra with a plethora of unpleasant heads.

When the tables are finally turned, the truth behind the Bakersfield Massacre revealed, the sight of Killian careening through a billboard adorned with his own celebrity-endorsed product is such a fist-pumping moment. Few villains deserve such a beautifully ironic death, his poetic demise capturing the tone of the movie exquisitely. As Richards so fittingly puts it, echoing the ad’s tagline, it certainly ‘hits the spot’. It’s difficult to gauge how much is fine acting on Dawson’s part and how much is the real him, or at the very least an amped-up version played to the absolute hilt, but that’s what, along with priceless turns from Karen Hopkins and Kurt Fuller as Killian’s soulless studio lickspittles, makes the character and his performance so fascinating. Whatever the case, The Running Man would have been half the movie without Dawson’s contributions. Beyond Arnie’s star appeal, he’s the movie’s lifeblood. Who loves you, and who do you love? Okay Killian, you got me.

Elsewhere, support is a little less memorable. Live and Let Die‘s Yaphet Kotto is typically dependable but somewhat underutilised as Richards’ prison buddy Laughlin, succumbing to the grizzled end of a chainsaw in one of several violent scenes that pit our runners against a rampant crew of what are essentially contract killers. The fact that larger than life characters such as Sub-Zero, Buzzsaw and Fireball, characterised with all the depth of dystopian video game Smash TV, prove more memorable than one of the finest actors of his generation, tells you everything you need to know about the movie’s commercial intentions. Played by former American Pro Wrestler Professor Toru Tanaka, steroid-pumped weightlifter Gus Rethwisch and NFL legend Jim Brown, respectively, the film favours shallow fancies over characterisation, something that must have displeased King greatly, but in an ironic, self-reflexive way it’s something of an inspired turn. It may weaken the roles of perennial 80s firecracker Maria Conchita Alonso’s Amber Mendez, an ICS employee and eventual love interest condemned to the bloodstained bowels of ICS studios after snooping around for the truth on the Bakersfield Massacre, and Marvin J. McIntyre’s peripheral egghead with a death wish Harold Weiss (both of whom are fine actors by the way), but the film proves more than the sum of its parts. Even Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood, almost unrecognisable beneath a silver wig and mounds of latex, makes a brief cameo as an aging freedom fighter running the resistance from the flea market anonymity of the city’s shantytowns, but as an ode to shallow exhibitionism it works a treat. Anyone raised on a diet of 80s action will love everything about this movie.

As for our marquee attraction, he’s learnt a thing or two since his bumbling days as Hercules in New York. If Conan and The Terminator accentuated the Austrian Oak’s strengths, utilising his Teutonic accent and robotic mannerisms to positive effect rather than concealing them, The Running Man, for the most part, sees Arnie grow considerably more comfortable with his headliner status. He’s still laughably bad at times, taking you completely out of the movie. His wooden delivery when turning to the camera after seeing his friends imprisoned in preparation for TV’s deadliest gauntlet is absolutely priceless, an ode to Simpsons parody Rainier Wolfcastle that will not doubt leave you reaching for the rewind button, but overall he’s far more at home than he was in the absolutely priceless Commando, the first major picture that required him to relinquish the casting harness and show a bit more character.

Killian, here’s your Subzero, now plain zero.

Ben Richards

Of course, Arnie is all about the cute quips, which means he’s generally only as good as his dialogue. There are some killer one-liners in The Running Man. They’re not in the same league as those delivered in Commando and Predator, most of the best lines belonging to Dawson’s Killian, and though lines such as “he had to split” are classic de Souza, it all seems a little undercooked at times, a little too formulaic, a fact not helped by the film’s underwhelming set design and anti-cerebral plot. If you’re a fan of all things 80s, you may feel differently, but a movie that cost in the region of $30,000,000, a similar budget to the awe-inducing Blade Runner, should feel bigger, meatier and more spectacular. Most of the time we’re confined to smoky, neon sets that are notably clunky and subdued for a mainstream speculative film of this nature. At one point during the ‘captured’ footage of the Bakersfield Massacre, we’re treated to stock footage stolen from 1976’s King Kong. The action is even shot from inside a helicopter from multiple angles in a way that feels jarringly synthetic given its ‘actual footage’ presentation. Sometimes it’s like looking at giant, action figure playsets clumsily positioned on the ill-fitting expanse of a living room carpet.

Like Blade Runner, one element that sets the movie apart is Harold Faltermeyer’s blistering soundtrack, a seething synth classic with heavy rock cues and contemplative melodic flourishes that grows richer with every listen. It’s not at the same level as Vangelis’ magical opus for sheer beauty, but it excels at typifying the film’s shallow dystopia and the inherent dangers within. From the album’s sublime, doom-laden intro to the simply hilarious Captain Freedom’s Workout, an inspired theme song for a fictional TV show of the same name that lampoon’s America’s obsession with celebrity-endorsed aerobics, Faltermeyer’s sci-fi splurge is key to establishing the film’s dystopian world and the emotions of those who inhabit it, something that the script and general aesthetics often fail to do. Despite benefiting from arguably the most important and emotionally compelling soundtracks in existence, Blade Runner would still ooze awe-inspiring beauty with the sound turned down, but that’s not exactly the case with The Running Man. Faltermeyer lends the movie the cutting edge and sense of world-building it would otherwise have been lacking. It’s that damn important, and easily one of the most unique and memorable soundtracks of the 1980s.

The Running Man

Despite such shortcomings, the film’s flimsy sets, glowing with all the grandeur of a dystopian theme park, are really quite charming. As a kid, I wanted nothing more than to take a ride on The Running Man‘s super-charged rollercoaster to hell, to toil in the neon-drenched dungeons of ICS studios and battle characters who were no different than archetypal video game bosses. Everybody had their favourite: human sushi-machine Sub-Zero, raging meathead Buzzsaw, the utterly charming Captain Freedom or the unconscionable, jetpack-propelled Fireball, who took great delight in revealing that last year’s winners were in fact last year’s losers, and our cast are completely onboard, hamming it up to delirious levels. Even Alonso, though sometimes relegated to 80s female accessory, works wonders going up against Arnie’s wooden libido, crackling whenever the opportunity presents itself, especially when dishing out just desserts to colossal boob-come-wannabee rapist Dynamo. After all, there’s nothing funny about a dickless moron with a battery up his ass. Despite a supposed lack of imagination on Glaser’s part, his film certainly sparked the imagination of my 8-year-old self, inspiring all kinds of action figure forays, homemade comic strips and suitably violent, often regrettable bouts of playfighting. I even concocted my own deadpan retorts as a homage to my number one action hero. I rented this movie so many times it was borderline obscene, and I’m sure there are many more of you out there.

So was The Running Man a creative triumph or a missed opportunity? As a monument to gaudy 80s excess in the golden age of action movies, there are few as potent or as memorable for yours truly, even if it does lack the seminal qualities and creative bite of Arnie’s more celebrated films. At the same time, in an era of inexhaustible reboots, few are as deserving as The Running Man, a story that would be more than at home in the star-studded, budget-heavy realms of the modern television format. It’s surprising that a more loyal King adaptation hasn’t materialised sooner, though Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright has already taken up the mantle, a more faithful reimagining already in the works. It sounds promising too. The award-winning Wright, renown for his selective disposition when it comes to choosing new material, has long-since had an affinity with King’s story, openly citing The Running Man as the number one property he feels compelled to remake. As someone with a keen mind for cultural nostalgia, you’ve got to believe there will be a few nods to Glaser’s movie too, even if he has distanced himself from its influence creatively. Perhaps, in the words of Killian, they’ll finally give the people what they want. Personally, I’m more than happy with another classic Glaser re-run.

Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Screenplay: Steven E. de Souza
Cinematography: Thomas Del Ruth
Music: Harold Faltermeyer
Editing: John Wright, Mark Warner
& Edward A. Warschilka

2 comments

  1. Edison,
    Thanks very much for providing such an entertaining and informative review/commentary of one of my all-time favorite movies. My sealed copy of The Running Man is one of the most prized tapes in my VHS collection. I agree that this movie encapsulates everything 80s: The glam, violence, and of course Arnold’s physicality and one-liners. Yes, the movie is derivative of the book and everything we liked in that decade, but it’s still more entertaining than the 99% of the ‘content’ produced nowadays. The fact that the movie’s style and messaging is growing in relevance is a great bonus. I don’t mind at all that the movie is so far from the book (which I also enjoyed), but I’m looking forward to Edgar Wright’s project getting off the ground.

    Like

    1. Hi Rey,

      It really is my pleasure. Thanks so much for the lovely comment.

      The Running Man is one of my absolute favourite Arnie vehicles for all the reasons you mention. People, including King, may have been critical (he was a hard man to please when it came to the handling of his material it seems) but it’s very much a movie of its time and place, and to its credit. I can’t even begin to comprehend how many times I’ve seen The Running Man and I’m already itching for another watch. Richard Dawson is beyond brilliant, and Faltermeyer’s soundtrack is absolutely top-notch.

      I must admit, I’m a tad jealous that you have a sealed VHS of this movie. It really is a treasure to be cherished. Take good care of it (I’m that sure you will). The Running Man encapsulates the VHS era as much as any movie I care to recall, so it’s rather fitting. It’s comforting to know that there’s such a pristine copy still in existence. Good man!

      Like

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