The Running Man (1987)

running man - arnold

The future hypothesized in The Running Man is a bleak one, and it’s coming up too: 2017, only four more years to go. An all-powerful dictatorial government controls its population via televised entertainment, the primary example being the massively popular Running Man game show which features (hint hint) men running. They run from extravagantly themed gladiators with fancy weapons (blow torches, chainsaws, bladed hockey sticks…) who will kill their prey upon catching them. The future citizens cheer and clap and love the program, which somehow has something to do with brainwashing them into conformity, or making them more pliant citizens, or something. You’d think there’d be at least thirty scenes of people just wishing they could watch a rerun of Frasier or Mike and Molly or something, something from “back when people didn’t gruesomely die on popular TV shows.”

It’s a dark plot, half-assedly handled. It’s also, at times, a light action-comedy, with Arnold delivering quips and one-liners to frustrated antagonists. It’s moderately funny at times, which is the kinder way of saying it’s moderately unfunny too.

Running Man takes the idea of public execution, a ritual with a long history that continues to exist, and takes it to the extreme, imagining a future where the entertainment mode of television is mixed with Roman-era style carnage. The basic idea isn’t horrible, and it does link itself to a fascinating history. Roman times featured not only gladiatorial contests, but “performances” by prisoners found guilty of crimes both large and small, or political prisoners from conquered territories or uprisings. These performances would be presented as plays, with prisoners assuming assigned parts and reciting lines until, at a signaled time in the narrative, a lion or bear or other beast would be unleashed into the play, and the audience would laugh and cheer as the actors attempted to flee their gruesome deaths.

Public executions continue into the present, though in less showy ways. In parts of the world people are still executed in public forums, sometimes with citizens invited to participate in acts like stoning. In 2001, 300 invited guests watched Timothy McVeigh die. Countless people worldwide watched the cell phone video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging in 2006. Similar numbers of people have probably watched the various videos of Muamar Gaddafi’s death in 2011. While these last three examples are more about catharsis than entertainment, they still help draw a clear line from the present day back to the ancient spectacle consumption of criminals’ deaths.

Running Man stages a future in which we’ve retreated back to the entertainment of executing “deserving” criminals. It’s a simple concept brought hastily to life, without consideration for nuance or reality. No one displays understandable apprehension about the Running Man show, no viewers have a compound opinion (i.e. “Those criminals get what they deserve, but I don’t want to watch something so bloody.”) No one we meet for the entire film, save Arnold Schwarzenegger, is conflicted by the brutality.

Our boy Arnold, innocent as they come, is purposefully framed and forced onto the show. We see an array of semi-powerful people involved in the show’s production: producers, various office workers, performers… The thought keeps occurring: how are these people such gleeful and confident participants in such a barbaric system? We see the plot unfolding and can predict the just ending that awaits them. Don’t these guys realize that the system they support, one that dehumanizes its victims in the name of profit, would turn on them too if it could prosper from doing so? The show’s audience members and participants are so at ease when, to us, it seems so clear that the primary factor dividing audience from victim is random chance. We watch this and think, this is so simple and stupid.

But maybe that’s the secret genius of Running Man. Many of us participate daily in systems with unseen or easily ignored victims. By random chance, born in a different circumstance, you could be a Burmese child forcibly trafficked to Thailand, locked in a factory peeling shrimp for seventeen hours a day until your hands don’t function. You could be a garment factory worker in Bangladesh, working in an industry in which an estimated 600 or your fellow workers have burnt to death in the last seven years due to managerial negligence. We participate in these systems as consumers, at ease and with full confidence that we won’t wake up one day and find ourselves in the role of exploited factory worker. The simple reality presented in The Running Man just drastically shortens the chain. Instead of happy consumers all the way on one end and exploited victims all the way on the other, Running Man gives us viewers and victims, with one group surprisingly unaware of how easily they could be the other.

Which all sounds like a lot of back bending to elevate a junky sci-fi movie. It’s got a dopey plot that would’ve made for an okay Twilight Zone episode, only it’s spread out to 90 minutes and lacks the sure handling of a creative talent like Rod Serling. The source material is a short Stephen King novel (short by King’s standards anyway — King’s novels often feature lengths just shy of In Search of Lost Time) written by King’s alias/alter-ego Richard Bachman. It’s far more interesting on the page than it is on the screen. Read the book and you have the pleasure of being guided by a top-shelf genre novelist; watch the movie and you’re in the hands of the man who would go on to make Kazaam with Shaquille O’Neal. Saying a book by Stephen King is better than a movie by a director-for-hire on a tight schedule (director Paul Michael Glaser only got the job after Andrew Davis was fired near the beginning of shooting) is an obvious statement to make, and is forcefully proven by this rubbishy movie.

Bullet Points:

running man - title

  • Horrible title font. Think this stuff through when you make a movie.
  • A paragraph of text introduces the future: “A sadistic game show called ‘The Running Man’ has become the most popular program in history.” You think it has more viewers than the M*A*S*H finale???
  • In future-prison, prisoners wear collars that detonate if they pass a certain distance barrier, exploding their heads. The good thing about the perimeter design: it helpfully announces, over and over, “perimeter deactivated” so all the prisoners will know to make a run for it.
  • You know who’s in this movie? Give you a hundred dollars if you said Mick Fleetwood.

running man - los angeles

  • Neat, though cheap, looking future city skyline. The music and visuals suggest a cut-rate recreation of Blade Runner visuals.
  • Arnold’s character’s nickname: “The Butcher of Bakersfield.” I’ll tell ya, they name things in Bakersfield after everybody that ever had anything to do with that city. Earl Warren Junior High, Buck Owens Boulevard, Merle Haggard Drive… I’m surprised they haven’t renamed a highway down there after this fictional character.
  • Here’s a few shows we see snippets of throughout the movie:
    • Captain Freedom’s Workout – a workout show hosted by a Running Man gladiator.
    • Climbing For Dollars – contestants climb a rope above a pit of Rottweilers
    • My favorite: a poster for the show The Hate Boat, which we never see on air
  • The evil producer/host of The Running Man show picks up the phone. “Get me the justice department, entertainment division. No wait, get me the president’s agent.” All these 1980s sci-fi movie have the same horrible future: Back to the Future 2, Robocop, Brazil, Terminator etc. Find me one movie from that time period set in a future where things are looking up.
  • To get out of the country without a “travel pass” Arnold’s whole plan is to steal one from somebody, then take that person with him, then pretend they forgot their second travel pass. It works, and the guard scanning for travel passes summons them through the gate, frustrated with waiting while they search through their things for their second pass. The hell kind of plan is this?

running man - dodgson

  • Dodgson! We’ve got Dodgson here!
  • The producer/host captures Arnold and explains why he wants him to participate on The Running Man. “You got talent. No, you got more. You got talent, you got charisma…” He takes a decent pause before motioning toward Arnold’s groin. “…And you got balls.”
  • I would’ve preferred if they’d used this moment as a jumping off point, the first physical observation of many. In this hypothetical version he then points at and names each body part. “You got a left arm! And you got a right arm! And you got a nose!” And on and on. Just eat up ten minutes of movie time doing this. One of those endless jokes that’s funny… then keeps going until it’s no longer funny… then keeps going… and going… “You got big toe! And you got a little toe!” …On and on and on until the audience leaves. What’s to lose? They weren’t doing anything better with the screen time. If everybody leaves early enough they can still pick a different movie and the nice people who work at the theater can come in and clean without being in a big rush.
  • Ha. Doctor lights up a cigarette in a lab. They really whiffed on some predictions for what the future would be like.
  • This movie contains a two-to-three minute sequence of dancers introducing the show. Did anyone check to see if this was boring?
  • As Arnold is brought out to begin this elaborate game in which he is assured to die, one fan, amidst all the boos, shouts “Kill him.” They should show the confused fans around him turning to say “the hell do you think we’re here for?”
  • This concept — that of an updated Gladiator-style competition televised for entertainment — obviously has some legs; it keeps popping up now and then. Our current example is The Hunger Games.
  • A man takes bets in front of a large outdoor screen displaying the show. “Get your bets in!” he yells, as a mob of people smash crumpled handfuls of money into his hand. No one’s getting a bet slip, or communicating how much they are betting on who. Money actually falls to the ground as it is haphazardly pushed into the bookie’s hands. Doesn’t make any sense. At one point an assistant makes a single notation on a chalkboard following dozens upon dozens of bets. I’d keep my money in my pocket if this was what I saw when I showed up to bet.
  • Arnold kills “Professor Sub Zero” by tearing the barbwire off a fence and pulling it around his neck. Brutal and inventive but shot in some suffocating red light that masks what we’re seeing. Same red light when he jams the chainsaw through “Buzzsaw’s” groin. Have to assume it was a decision, maybe to ensure a certain MPAA rating?
  • Buzzsaw’s chainsaw is advertised as being so strong it can cut “sinew” and “solid steel.” You have to assume one if you hear the other, right?
  • Killian explaining Gilligan’s Island over the phone to the justice department is actually very funny.
  • The position of the cameras in this huge urban gladiator maze is never clear. Sometimes the home audience sees the angles and cuts we see as the film’s audience, while other times we see the characters maneuver around unseen by the game show cameras. A few times, cameras are explicitly pointed out (mostly perched atop buildings) but when we see the feed the audience sees, it’s never from the POV of these horribly placed unmoving cameras two stories in the sky.
  • Running Man is like a movie length version of the ending of Coneheads, when Dan Akroyed must battled Gnarfle the Garthok in a gladiatorial arena. Except Coneheads might look a little better.

running man - jesse ventura hair

  • Can we agree this was an excellent hair look for Jesse Ventura?
  • Arnold approaches his dying friend, unaware of the severity of his injuries. “Let’s go,” he says.
    • “I’m going somewhere, but not with you…” his friend says portentously. “Buzzsaw took care of my travel arrangements.” He moves his hand to display a mortal blade wound.
    • You know where I think he’s going guys? The place he’s talking about? Heaven.

Ranked #5 in the “Schwarzenegger 1985-1988” series. Visit the Series page for other entries.

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