Stephen King’s The Running Man Was a Film Ahead of Its Time

A 1980s sci-fi classic? The last film Arnold Schwarzenegger made before he got really powerful? Guilty on both counts, Simon argues...

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. Is it prescience on the level of The Truman Show? Probably not. But to the best of our knowledge, The Truman Show didn’t feature a major action superstar clad in lycra. We ask you: who’s the real winner there?

That said, a TV show where you just watch people get killed – a kind of Gladiators with a chainsaw rather than a foam hammer – has surely caused at least one meeting to happen at Channel Five.

The Running Man, though, continues to be one of the least talked about Arnold Schwarzenegger films of the 1980s, when it’s comfortably one of the most fun. In an era when Conan, Twins, The Terminator, and Predator are all getting new sequels, nobody’s gone back for another look at The Running Man. That said, as a monument to gaudy 80s action cinema – violent, colourful, over the top, not afraid of an 18 certificate – it’s somewhat refreshing that it’s not been meddled with.

Furthermore, The Running Man was 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. A further reason to love it: it kicks off with a gloriously dated credits roll, where heavily pixelated text that I’m not even sure looked futuristic when I first saw the film. It’s a smashing font, that no human being since has used by choice, and there’s a Track & Field style graphic of men running too. Stop the film at that point, it’s still getting four stars.

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But then it begins, and we’re once more in a dark, scary future. This particular future has been dreamed up by Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman. The film is a loose adaptation of his book.

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The scenario, then, is explained via text – in another badly chosen yet conversely quite brilliant font – 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. This is all going to happen FIVE YEARS FROM NOW. It is all bound to come true. 

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 (there are many other examples of action heroes being wrongfully accused here). 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.

No wonder he looks so sad. He even grows facial hair, one of the rare times that Arnie does so on the big screen (see also: Kindergaten Cop). Still, even while captive, we are left in no doubt that Ben Richards is also A Very Strong Man.

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It takes a jail break to bring Richards to the attention of Damon 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. Because Richards is A Good Man. Killian then sends all four of them down into the game zone. The cad.

What I loved about The Running Man from the early stages, 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.

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?

Game Time

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.

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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.

Gladiators Ready!

And here comes the gold. 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. The bastard.

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 potshots at the effects of a 25-year old modestly-budgeted action film, but there are moments here that still stand up well.

Of course, it’s when The Running Man tries to look futuristic that it ends up looking hopelessly out of date.

Back to the game, though, and there’s barely a moment where it looks like Ben Richards will lose. In the same year, RoboCop was dragged to the cliff edge of life before he finally got some degree of redemption. Arnie? He breaks sweat a couple of times, but he may as well be playing Call of Duty.

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It’s little surprise then that Ben Richards survives The Running Man, and sends Killian to his doom. There’s some neat audience manipulation work before that, though, as Killian arranges for fake footage of Richards being killed to be broadcast. He has to though: the crowd outside are threatening to switch over to The Hunger Games. Furthermore, said crowd is turning to Richards’ side. We know this because they dare to bet on him at the bookies outside. Said bookies seem surprised that someone would bet on anyone other than the assorted gladiators, which suggests the list of odds they offer is quite short. Nonetheless, the fake footage ruse is expose when Richards gets to the studio. Civilisation as we know it breaks down.

For this is when 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, and 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?

Something To Say

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. After all, away from the action, The Running Man is making points that The Truman Show, The Hunger Games, and even My Little Eye would be praised for making a decade or two down the line.

As much as we love the glorious action and fights – it’s like a video game with increasingly tricky and garish end of level bosses – there’s also something beneath the surface of The Running Man. 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. Not that we encourage such things.

We’d be surprised if the original director is brought back, though. Because it’s none other than Detective Dave Starsky calling the shots, Mr Paul Michael Glaser.

With the help of, natch, a Steven E de Souza screenplay, he does a 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 an okay choice.

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Not that Schwarzenegger was too happy with him though. He didn’t have many critical words to say about his directors in his recent autobiography, but Arnie did imply that Glaser was out of his depth here. It seems quite a harsh assessment from our side of the fence, and it also doesn’t factor in that Glaser was a replacement director.

After all, before he got involved, 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. As he argued in an interview with Express And Star in 2013, “The Running Man was a strange project. I initially turned it down because I didn’t feel there was enough time to prepare. They hired another director, but then he left it. So they came back to me. You know, there were a lot of problems to solve. I learned how to think on my feet. In the beginning, the film was in disarray, but we made it”.

Make it he did. And with The Running Man, he helped fashioned a hugely entertaining 80s action movie, with a fair bit under the bonnet, and a ruthless killer dressed as a Christmas tree. And there aren’t many of us on Planet Earth that can say that.

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A version of this article appeared on our UK site in 2014.