Title: The Running Man (1987)
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Cast: Arnold Schwarznegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson, Jesse Ventura
So since I’m still on a revolutionary role here after the success of VIVA LA REVOLUTION, I decided to post my review for The Running Man, a film that also has a rebellious streak to it. It was made at the time when Arnold Schwarznegger’s career was in full swing. He’d already made The Terminator, the two Conan films, Commando and Predator. He was well on his way towards becoming the cinematic legend that he is. The Running Man isn’t exactly Arnolds best film, but it has a deliciously rebellious aura to it that I enjoyed.
Arnold, the rebellious convict
In the year 2019, the world’s economy is in shambles and the United States has turned into a totalitarian dystopia. To appease the masses, the government runs a show called The Running Man, the most successful television show ever aired. The show consists of giving convicts the opportunity to win full pardons if and only if they survive being hunted down by the “Stalkers”, killers who are paid to hunt and kill the convicts. Enter Ben Richards; a convict who was wrongly accused. He is an innocent man and he knows it so he will stop at nothing to escape the stalkers and win his pardon. He also intends to stop the sadistic show from ever going on the air again.
A lot of these rebellious films have their main character start out as part of the government machine, then, for whatever reason they are betrayed by the government they work for and suddenly have to run from them. Suddenly, instead of working for the system, these types of characters become ‘enemies of the state’. Usually, they start the film out as police men or soldiers of the government and are happy to be working for them, until the tables turn and the main character feels the oppression and the lies for themselves. He or she finally tastes first hand the heel of the governments boot stomping them square in the face. You can find characters like these in such films as Equilibrium, Logan’s Run, and the film I’ll be talking about today, The Running Man.
In The Running Man Schwarznegger plays Ben Richards, a military pilot who refuses to open fire on a crowd of civilians who are protesting for food. “All they want is some food for Christ sake!” yells Ben, while the government orders him to kill all the protesters. His refusal to obey the governments’ orders earns him exclusive reservations at the state penitentiary. He manages to escape with the help of a motley crew of rebels and from there on in he literally becomes the running man, always running away from government officials, running for his freedom. You see, in the film, the government uses the media to make it look like Ben actually did open fire on all those civilians. They even named him the ‘Butcher of Bakersfield’. So, with the government and the rest of society against him, he runs. It’s no surprise that freedom is often times associated with running for it, escaping to some peaceful location; free from the choke hold of ‘the system’. Films like Vanishing Point (1971) Logan’s Run (1976) and even Easy Rider (1969) show us this. These films are filled with characters running from the authorities in search of their own personal freedom.
The Running Man comments on the media and how easily the masses are swayed by it. The people are addicted to The Running Man, they form groups in front of giant television screens that are reminiscent of the tele-screens that Big Brother would bark his orders from in Orwell’s 1984. The audience loves the violence; they love to see the Stalkers kill the convicts in gruesome ways. And they eat up all of the lies that the shows host, Damon Killian, tells them. The movie shows how easily the masses can be controlled with television and media. At one point in the film the cheer for the Stalkers and the next, they are cheering for Ben. At one point the adore Killian, and the next they want to rip him to shreds.
By the way, Damon Killian is one sleaze ball of a character! Casting former Family Feud host Richard Dawson to play Damon Killian was a brilliant move. I mean, lets face it, Richard Dawson was the game show host that everyone loved to hate. In my opinion during his Family Feud days, Dawson always had that sleazy quality to him that translated perfectly to the equally sleazy Killian a character who loves the publics attention, and he knows how to manipulate them, a quality he uses to full advantage in the film. By the way, this film kind of does the same kind of fake television commercials we saw in Robocop. There’s one for a show called ‘Climbing for Dollars’ in which we see a guy climbing a rope for some money that’s hanging at the top of the rope, only to fall down to a pack of rabid dogs. Once again showcasing the publics fascination with the morbid, kind of like the same principle we saw in shows like Fear Factor where we would delight in seeing others putting themselves in danger.
But don’t mistake The Running Man for a deep meaningful film. Essentially, after Ben Richards becomes part of The Running Man show, the movie turns into a silly cat and mouse game with the stalkers chasing after the convicts. Each stalker has a special ability. Fireball flies with a jet pack and uses a flamethrower. Dynamo sings opera as he shoots lightning bolts out of his special suit, Buzzsaw drives a motorcycle and wields a chainsaw at the same time and finally, Subzero plays ice hockey with exploding pucks! Unfortunately, the fun is taken right out of these characters because they each get wiped out by Arnold and his buddies in zero point five seconds. The director Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky of Starsky and Hutch!) really didn’t take his time in making these battle sequences special. At all. I mean what’s the use of coming up with these characters if your going to kill them in five seconds? It was really a wasted opportunity if you ask me. In a movie that is supposed to be filled with violence, and we are supposed to be repelled by how violent people have turned, there is not much of it. At least not on screen.
The film was based on a Stephen King novel of the same name, but no one, not even the films producers knew about this while making the film because King printed that novel under his pseudonym Richard Bachman and at the time, no one knew that Bachman was really King in disguise. Lot’s of changes where made from book to screen, originally the game takes place all over the world, and the runner could go to any part of the world, and the stalker would follow him wherever he went. Ben Richards was a family man, participating in the game only out of necessity because he had just lost his job. King himself feels that Arnold portrayed the character in a diametrically opposite way to the one he wrote. What you get in this movie is Arnold being Arnold. And you know what that means: one liners galore! He sometimes says a joke right before he kills somebody and sometimes after, and sometimes both! They had me cracking up through out the whole film.
Weirdest thing about this movie? Its all about rebellion, but in the film Arnold’s character isn’t much of a rebel. Yes, he sides with the rebels and helps them out, but as he says in the film “I’m not into politics, I’m into survival” which was kind of funny to hear Arnold say since he is at the time I write this the governor of California. He tells them that their opinion isn’t very popular these days and that they talk too much and do very little. I kind of see where they were going with these comments. These are very common accusations made at rebel camps. They are never organized, they dont have a leader, and they don’t do what they should be doing. I kind of agree with the guy. Still, in this film, the rebels win, so we can add this one to the list of films in which fictional revolutionaries beat the system!
Rating: 3 out of 5