Film Review: THE RUNNING MAN (1987)

THE RUNNING MAN **** USA 1987 Dir: Paul Michael Glaser. 100 mins

Adapted from the ROLLERBALL-influenced novella by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman), this unfolds in the future Hell of 2017. Art is mass-censored, the world economy has collapsed, food riots are commonplace and the most popular TV series is a sadistic game show named “The Running Man”, from the same network as “The Hate Boat”. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an innocent helicopter pilot wrongly framed as “The Butcher of Bakersfield” in a nation brainwashed by the media; his prison escape results in an exploding head within the first ten minutes courtesy of perimeter-activated neck collars predating the Rutger Hauer vehicle WEDLOCK. Looking good in a loud shirt and a short-lived beard, Arnie is soon squeezed into a custom-made one-piece yellow lycra suit, dishing out one-liners as he goes mano a mano with a succession of gurning, gimmicky grotesques in what resembles an ultra-violent version of “Gladiators”.
One of the most popular actors on American television of the 1970’s, director Paul Michael Glaser has a lot of fun capturing a satirical but horribly prescient vision of Future TV, in the same movie year as ROBOCOP. (Note how “Climbing For Dollars”, in which hapless shmucks do just that while ravenous dogs snap at their heels, was made a reality by “Grab A Grand” in “Noel’s House Party”). Richard Dawson is terrific playing a fascist version of his real-life “Family Feud” TV persona (“Americans love television!” We’ll give them what they want!”) and overseeing a show that manipulates reality to rile up the bloodthirsty audience while allowing middle-aged housewives the chance to select which “stalker” will pursue that week’s doomed contestant (one sweet old lady enthuses “That boy’s one mean motherfucker!”). Arnie hadn’t yet succumbed to outright comedies but was already a walking self-parody at this point, with the inevitable “I’ll be back” leading to a Dawson retort of “Only in a re-run”. The movie offers an ironic commentary on the popularity of his violent movies, as the show-within-the-film frequently cuts from a scene of gruesome mayhem to jubilant audience reactions cheering for more.
In the kind of bizarre late 80’s cast where even Mick Fleetwood (!) doesn’t feel out of place, Jesse Ventura plays “America’s own Captain Freedom”, Gus Rethwisch is Buzz-saw”, a kind of forgotten member of the TEXAS CHAINSAW clan (“The saw’s part of me!”), “Fireball” Jim Brown has a jet pack and ALONE IN THE DARK’s Erland Van Lidth is the electricity-manipulating Dynamo, who sings opera during his rampage and is memorably derided by heroine / synthesizer musician Maria Conchita Alonso as a “dickless moron with a battery up his ass”. The videogame structure works in the movie’s favour: years later, Maurice Devereaux remade the whole premise with a horror twist for $LASHER$ though many others have borrowed its concepts. Among the movie’s accurate future predictions is Dawson’s digital superimposing of our heroes’ faces on to stunt double bodies in a bit to convince the audience that Arnie and Alonso have been defeated, the kind of movie magic routine for this kind of action movie in the 21st century.

Review by Steven West

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