SUMMARY: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a wrongfully accused cop who fights for his freedom in the most dangerous game show ever. Dystopian governments are threatened, blood is shed, Richard Dawson hams it up, and lots of smartass quips are delivered.
The Running Man combines two of my favorite things: Stephen King and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Based very loosely on a novella that King wrote, Running Man tells the tale of one Ben Richards, a down and out family man who gets involved with a deadly game in order to win money to help his sick child. It’s a rather dark, dreary piece that King wrote under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. The story unfolds in a depressing yet gripping manner, but I find it pales somewhat in comparison to the glorious hunk of cheese that is the film based on the book.
The story was altered drastically to fit Arnold’s persona, and an element of satire was thrown in as well. Given that this is first and foremost an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, it goes without saying that the level of satire found here isn’t quite as successful as that in other action films of the day. It works fine, but when you stack it up against other movies in the genre, it falls flat.
In the film, Ben Richards is a cop who gets set up, and is blamed for a massacre when he refuses to fire on civilians. He escapes prison and falls in with some rebels looking to take down the establishment, in the form of a TV network run by Damon Killian (Richard Dawson). Written by the same guy who did Commando, this was Arnold’s first film after Predator, and it’s a prime example of what made his movies such huge hits. It’s relentlessly stupid, aggressively violent, chock full of cheesy humor, and a hell of a lot of fun. I give it 8 out of 10 rocket sleds. Let’s check it out.
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As an odd side note, this film almost ended up starring Christopher Reeve, but he passed on it in favor of Superman IV. I can’t say I blame him for going with the deal that the Superman film offered, but one does have to wonder how this movie would have turned out with him in the lead.
We begin with some cheesy synthesizer music courtesy of Harold “without Beverly Hills Cop my career would be nothing” Faltermeyer, as several blocky animations of a running man spin us into the title of the film. Right off the bat, it’s clear we’re in cheesy ‘80s heaven, as the graphics are wonderfully primitive by today’s standards.
We fade to red, and the film plants itself even further into the realm of cheesy goodness with that hallmark of any good/bad sci-fi film about a dystopian/post-apocalyptic society: The opening crawl.
I won’t relay the entire thing, but here’s the simple version. The year is 2017 and the world has gone headlong into the crapper, with an economic collapse and the establishment of a police state which also controls the television networks. To distract the masses, the government puts on sadistic game shows, the most popular and violent of which is The Running Man. Censorship of the media is the norm, but a small resistance force has been building momentum.
It seems the shows are not always enough to keep the people in line, which we see as the film proper begins with a helicopter roaring past. The location is identified as Bakersfield, California, where a food riot is breaking out. At the helm of the copter is Ben Richards (the Governator himself) who identifies the rioters as unarmed civilians. He’s ordered by his superiors to fire on them, but he refuses and gets into a fight with his fellow officers on the chopper.
Richards is subdued, and we jump ahead eighteen months to the Wilshire Detention Zone, where Richards is a prisoner. We get a look at life in this prison while the opening credits play out, and there’s forced labor, explosive collars are worn by the prisoners, etc. All in all, it makes The Road Warrior’s vision of the future look pretty palatable.
We find Richards (now sporting a full beard) working in what looks like every abandoned steel mill used for the final scene of every crappy ‘80s action movie. Outside, a group of prisoners on work detail approach, and a security perimeter is deactivated. Richards throws down the huge iron beam he’s been lugging around as he comes across Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto), a fellow prisoner.
They watch as Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre) mills around near the guard controlling the security perimeter. Weiss gives Richards a nod, and then he starts a fight with Laughlin, which in turn sets off a riot as the guards fire at the prisoners.
Richards lifts up one of the guards and tosses him to his death, giving us a nice rail kill, as well as a nice quip from Arnold: “Give you a lift?” Meanwhile, Laughlin and Weiss get the laptop controlling the security perimeter, and try to deactivate the prisoners’ collars.
Richards gets to them, bantering a bit with Laughlin. Oddly enough, the facial hair seems to make Arnold’s grasp of English worse than usual. Either that, or he’s trying to give his character a different voice than he normally uses, in which case he’s severely overestimating his talent.
As Richards shoots random guards, they guess that the building they’re currently in is blocking the laptop’s signal, so they fight their way outside. After a bit, Weiss is finally able to deactivate the perimeter. One overzealous prisoner makes a run for it, but the perimeter isn’t fully down yet, so the collars are still active. We see the ramifications of this when his head explodes in mid-run.
Weiss finishes the job, and the prisoners run off as cheesy music blares triumphantly. Seriously, it’s like a crappy Nintendo game after you beat the final level.
As the opening credits end, we find out the movie is directed by Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch fame. Glaser replaced Andrew Davis (Under Siege), and to be honest, I like his stuff more than Davis’. If nothing else, he doesn’t try to shoehorn in serious material where it doesn’t belong. Yes, Code of Silence, I am looking at you. Goddamn waste of a perfectly good finale.
Moving on, we’re in Los Angeles at night. Amusingly enough, the only thing that really makes it clear we’re in the future is the omnipresent gigantic widescreen TV screen in the middle of the city. Apart from that, this could be any quiet Thursday night in L.A.
Still looks better than after a Lakers championship victory.
Well, okay, there’s also the fact that the streets have basically reverted to the Depression era, which we learn as our leads make their way through a shanty town. But technically, as I write this, there are some parts of downtown that look remarkably similar to this, so it’s actually a bit of a tossup.
The huge screen is also a source of amusement, as the opening seconds of the scene feature an announcement from a overly cheerful woman encouraging kids to inform on their family members, before going back to an ad for the movie’s titular game show.
Well, they can’t all be RoboCop.