Remembering The Running Man

Based on the Stephen King novel, The Running Man was arguably the last time Arnie didn't have clout on a film set, we reckon...

There’s presumably, somewhere, an essay to be written on how the story of The Running Man was the latest to offer a tantalising prediction of the reality television epidemic that would have taken over TV schedules within 20 years of its release. And while, to date, there’s not been a TV show where you just watch people get killed, presumably there’s also an essay to be written about how that’s just a matter of time.

I’ve no intention of writing either of those, though. Quite simply, almost by chance, I caught The Running Man on TV the other day, a film I’ve not seen for a good 15 years. And half way through, I couldn’t help feeling that amongst the chatter about Predator, Terminator and Conan of late, that it’s become a little bit of a forgotten Arnie film. And I think it deserves better than that.

Clearly made at a time when Schwarzenegger’s clout was growing, but still not at the level to veto wearing a silly yellow spandex costume for most of the film, it kicks off with a gloriously dated credits roll, where heavily pixellated text that I’m not even sure looked futuristic when I first saw the film, dates it immediately. I do love the little graphic of the men running, though. Yet, I digress.

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The scenario is explained via text – in a badly chosen font again – on a black screen. It is 2019, we learn. And in this happy, modern society, if you break the law, it’s not prison you have to fear. It’s being told to put on the aforementioned silly outfit, and then go into a massive 400 block arena (which looks nothing close to that size on film, of course) and basically get torn to shreds in a reality TV show that looks akin to a far more violent version of Gladiators.

Ben Richards, played by Arnie, is, of course, an innocent caught up in all of this. Just as Stallone was in Lock Up, he’s a man who’s found himself on the wrong side of the law by doing the right thing.

I love how the movies do this: there’s no way in hell a big star can even have a smite of a stain on their characters, and thus The Running Man goes to great lengths to show us that Ben Richards is A Great Guy. When he refuses to fire on a crowd of protestors rioting on the streets below his helicopter (and if you can find a less convincing helicopter flying backdrop than the one we get here, then I’d love to see it), he’s arrested and sent off to prison. Meanwhile, he’s framed for the eventual massacre of the people on the streets too, and footage is duly edited to show that it’s all his fault.

It takes a jail break, though, to bring him to the attention of Richard Killian. Killian is the creator and host of the top-rated show ‘The Running Man’, where he takes convicted felons and has them killed on prime time TV. In need of a boost for the show, he sees the footage of Richards, and goes off to get his man. Richards, of course, only agrees to go on when Killian says if he doesn’t, his three fellow convicts will instead. Killian then sends all four of them down into the game zone. The cad.

What I loved about this, apart from the fun that’s clearly been had with the baying-for-blood studio audience (which includes an alarming number of respectable pensioners) and the betting going on outside, is the character of Killian. Played by Richard Dawson, we know that he’s A Nasty Man when he gets a cleaner sacked after an innocuous incident in the foyer of the studio building. But as a crowd whooper-upper and all round shit, he’s a brilliant creation.

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Dawson, clearly, is having a whale of a time, playing on his experience of hosting game shows on TV to brilliant effect (not forgetting his long-running stint on Hogan’s Heroes). That said, he’s not wise to scoff when Arnie declares, “I’ll be back.” Has the man not seen The Terminator?

In the game zone itself, the wonderfully ludicrous moments then keep coming. Firstly, the four contestants have those aforementioned suits on, which also seem to have protective padding on the arms. That’ll come in handy, when someone runs towards them with a chainsaw later. Also, Killian has managed to send a nerdy computer hacker in with them, who – before being killed – manages to extract vital access codes from the clearly very sophisticated 2019 computer system. The extraction of the codes just seems to involve playing Track & Field for a bit, furiously whacking a few keys.

The film then has gleeful fun sending all manner of opponents down to try and kill Richards and his posse. Naturally, all of these are hyped up by Killian, who pulls old women out of the audience to choose who to send down next. In one case, he rewards said audience member with a VCR. That’ll come in useful in 2019.

So we get Subzero, who slides around with an ice hockey stick complete with blade on the end. Chainsaw-wielder Buzzsaw also has a go, and Captain Freedom (“Captain Freedom to wardrobe, please, Captain Freedom to wardrobe”) insists on fighting Richards without all the silly costumes and such like. But my favourite, without question, is the walking Christmas tree, Dynamo, who sings opera while cheap LEDs glow all over his body. Frankly, I’d have sat through a Dynamo spin-off movie there and then, yet he doesn’t make it to the end of the film.

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Actually, the lightning effects that kill Dynamo, I thought, were quite impressive, and there’s also a frequently-used long shot of Los Angeles in the future that works really well. It’s easy, to be fair, to take shots at the effects of a 20-year old modestly-budgeted action film, but they wring moments here that still stand up well. Of course, it’s when The Running Man tries to look futuristic that it ends up hopelessly out of date.

Inevitably, things all work out. After Killian arranges for fake footage of Richards being killed to be broadcast – this after the crowd was turning to his side (and incidentally, the bookies outside seemed surprised when someone wanted to bet on the contestant: doesn’t that, er, limit things a little for them if people only ever bet on the ‘gladiator’?) – the big man manages to get to the studio.

Then, the real footage of the Bakersfield Massacre is shown, with the helicopter material looking no more real, and the world realises that Ben Richards is actually A Great Guy. Killian, of course, gets sent down to his creation, also disappointingly, it’s not one of the twisted killers that gets him, instead a billboard for Cadre Cola. Do you think someone was trying to make a point?

Taking aside just how entertaining all of this was, The Running Man – if it had starred a more ‘serious’ actor – could still have been seen as a film with more to say than it’s given credit for. Based on the book by Stephen King (writing under his Richard Bachman pseudonym), it’s at its best, ironically, away from the action, instead when it explores Killian’s brilliantly-gruesome show. Taking time to show the reactions of those who watch the programme, as well as the machinations behind the scenes, it still delivers plenty of trademark Arnie moments. And it’s also, you suspect, ripe for a remake in the future.

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We’d be surprised if the original director is brought back, though. Because it’s none other than Detective Dave Starkey calling the shots, Mr Paul Michael Glaser. With the help of, natch, a Steven E de Souza screenplay, he does a thoroughly decent job here, and it’s arguably the peak of his movie directing career. Films such as The Air Up There and The Cutting Edge that followed afterwards didn’t win many people over, nor do much business, so most of his directing since has been aimed at the small screen (including episodes of Las Vegas). He seems less confident handling the action in The Running Man than he is the media material, but he, in the end, proved to be a good choice.

He wasn’t the first, though. The project had passed through the hands of Rambo: First Blood Part II helmer George P Cosmatos, Carl Schenkel, Ferdinand Fairfax and Andrew Davis, who would go on to make The Fugitive. Davis did get a week of filming in the can but shot over budget and got his marching orders. Glaser thus had to come in at short notice and get the film made.

All said, fun though it is, there’s no argument for The Running Man being any kind of modern classic here. But it’s still, I maintain, more than the sum of its parts, and a hugely entertaining 80s movie to catch back up with.

It could also be the only non-Trek movie to feature the line “Mr Spock, you have the con.”

Unless someone can prove me wrong…?