On paper, The Running Man is a difficult thing to explain. The plot is simple and familiar: humans hunting other humans. The added twist in The Running Man is that the whole thing is filmed and broadcast as the most popular TV show in the country. The harder elements to comprehend are with the people involved in this movie. At the top, Arnold Schwarzenegger is easy to explain, and this is his kind of bread and butter movie: one-liners, gets the girl, “I’ll be back,” defies the odds, shows off his absurd strength, etc. But below Arnold, the creative team gets progressively… more unique. The movie is directed by Starsky himself, Paul Michael Glaser, and based on a novel by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman. The cast of the movie includes Mick Fleetwood (who appears to be playing himself), Dweezil Zappa, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, and, in a movie-stealing performance, Family Feud frontman Richard Dawson as a sleazy, amoral game show host. The elements all feel, on paper, as though they’re not going to work and yet somehow they do, creating something that, while riddled with plot holes and contrivances, is so perfect in its mixture of cheesy, insane fun that 30 years after its release, it’s still worth talking about and celebrating from the far-future time period in which The Running Man is set.
The movie opens with a crawl announcing that it is 2017 and the world has fallen into disrepair with shortages of food, power, and water, leading to a police state that placates the masses with a hugely popular TV show, The Running Man. Beyond the anesthetic of The Running Man, the powers that be rule with an iron fist, which is exemplified by the opening scene in which Arnie’s character is tasked with massacring a food riot and, upon his refusal, knocked out by the rest of his team. We later find out that the massacre went as planned and edited footage was created to pin the deaths on Arnie so they could put him in prison out of the way. The rest is simple to imagine: he breaks out of prison, ends up on the show, and defeats all comers until he brings about the revolution revealing to the world the #FakeNews that the government has been peddling to them.
Any movie that posits the year 2017 as a dystopia is going to find itself back in the public eye right about now, and The Running Man doesn’t fail to provide some thinking points. Whenever we see something set in the current year, we can’t help but watch it with an eye towards how prescient the filmmakers in the past were when they set their movie in our present. With The Running Man, the then-absurd idea that reality TV shows would be the top-rated things on television and a means by which the masses are distracted and anesthetized by entertainment is a little bit distressing in its accuracy. More distressing is the fact that in The Running Man, the most dangerous man in the world is the host of a reality show. A man who peddles lies and fakeries to keep his fans on his side and whose abuse of power is helping to hasten the degradation of society. In 1987, I’m sure this was more a cautionary tale about the possible dangers of television and the casual violence of televised sports, but today it feels a little on the nose, especially when two of 45’s biggest critics have been the star of this movie and the writer of the book it’s loosely based on. The biggest difference between the movie and the real world is that Dawson’s villainous performance is delightful to watch behind the protective wall of fiction, while 45’s is not so much.
Outside of the search for prescience, The Running Man has stayed in the mainstream consciousness not just because it is solidly entertaining and funny, but also a great example of layered world-building. Throughout the movie, there are wonderful background details showing us different shows that the network airs like The Hate Boat, and throughout we see clips from other shows like Captain Freedom’s Workout and Climbing for Dollars, where a man climbs a rope grabbing at cash while Dobermans bite at his legs. The satirical elements of entertainment becoming so powerful that Richard Dawson’s game show host is constantly on the phone with the justice department, the attorney general, and the President’s agent, are on the nose but still amusing. This kind of subtle, background world-building is something that is both hard to do and, while you only need to look at John Wick or Fury Road to see how effective it is, missing from a lot of movies. Throughout The Running Man, there are mentions of an organisation called The Cadre that seems to be ruling America, but other than those brief references nothing is made concrete. However, the word cadre conjures up all kinds of interesting imagery and raises questions that help to deepen the world of this movie, which by all rights looks like it should be the standard action no-brainer, especially considering who is in the lead role.
However, much in the same way that The Running Man has managed to stay watched and talked about, Arnie’s work from this period is still held up as the pinnacle of an action hero in Hollywood. The continued appeal of his ‘80s and ‘90s work is that unlike his action hero contemporaries like Stallone, Seagal, and Van Damme (to name a few), Arnie didn’t keep to crime or war movies. Instead, he ended up as the lead in a lot of sci-fi movies which either aged well, gained cult status, or developed a quirky charm that makes them endlessly rewatchable whether as fuel for nostalgia or something to gather around and affectionately make fun of. It is also easier to believe that a man the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger exists in the worlds of The Running Man, Terminator, Total Recall, and The Predator than his existing as a beat cop or a soldier.
In some ways, that’s the key element that keeps The Running Man together. Schwarzenegger’s larger than life presence has just enough of its own gravity to hold all of the other absurd elements in place, from the over-he-top action set pieces and pro-wrestling inspired costumes to the once outlandish prediction for the future. The Running Man is not by any stretch of the imagination a perfect movie, nor does it hold up to rigorous scrutiny. It is, however, a delightful throwback, a fun popcorn flick, and, now, a chilling prediction of our somewhat dystopian present.
Featured Image: Tristar Pictures