There are three things I want to immediately say that I’ve learned upon rewatching this film: Mick Fleetwood is playing himself, it’s aged worse than movies with a much smaller budget, and most importantly, so much of the dystopian future of this movie isn’t as bad as the world we live in right now.
Wait — what, what and what the fuck?
Let’s back up a bit. The Running Man was a troubled production, with original director Andrew Davis (Under Siege, The Fugitive) being replaced a week into filming by former Starsky and Hutch actor, Paul Michael Glaser (he’s gone back to acting, but not before giving us the magic that is Kazaam). In his book, Total Recall, Arnold wrote that this was a horrible decision, as the director “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes. In fairness, Glaser just didn’t have time to research or think through what the movie had to say about where entertainment and government were heading and what it meant to get to the point where we actually kill people on screen. In TV they hire you and the next week you shoot and that’s all he was able to do.”
Written by Steven E. de Souza (who had a hell of a run, writing Commando, 48 Hrs. and the first two Die Hard films, while also adapting Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales for TV as Cadillacs and Dinosaurs) from the Richard Bachman book (Bachman was and is, of course, Stephen King, who was using a pseudonym to see if his success was due to talent or luck. A Washinton, D.C. book clerk named Steve Brown discovered the truth before an answer could be found. In fact, Bachman’s next book was to be Misery, which ended up becoming a King novel. The Dark Half, which became a George Romero movie, is based on this experience.). In the original book, hero Ben Richards is anything like the physical description of Arnold, who is near super-heroic.
The film starts that in 2017 — a time that we’re all sadly too familiar with — the U.S. has become a police state post worldwide economic collapse — perhaps not as close to home, but uncomfortably nearby. Actually, it’s way too fucking close to reality, as the opening text tells us that the “great freedoms of the United States are no longer, as the once great nation has sealed off its borders and become a militarized police state, censoring all film, art, literature, and communications.”
Within two years, the only thing that keeps the populace under control is The Running Man, a game show where convicted felons battle for their lives against the Stalkers, who are presented as pro wrestling/American Gladiators style stars. Damon Killian (Richard Dawson of TV’s Family Feud and Hogan’s Heroes, as well as one of the first people in the U.S. to own a VCR) hosts the proceedings and remains one of the enduring reasons to enjoy this film. One gets the idea that Dawson was keen to parody his years of hosting game shows and he cuts through this film, making his role so much better than it deserves to be, whether it’s his ads for Cadre Cola or the way he shits on everyone in his path, even lowly custodians. IMDB states that plenty of folks who worked with Dawson on Family Feud claim that he was exactly like this character, but that seems like the sour grapes of hearsay. Anyways, worried that ratings may slip, Killian pushes for Ben Richards, the “Butcher of Bakersfield,” (actually, it was all a setup and he was wrongly convicted of killing citizens during a food riot) to be the next runner.
Ben gets caught because instead of staying at a resistance camp — post-prison break where people’s heads get blown up real good — with fellow escapees Weiss (Yaphet Kotto from Alien and Live and Let Die) and Laughlin, he decides to find his brother. Instead, his brother has been taken in for re-education. In his place is Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonzo, Predator 2, The Lords of Salem), the composer of the music for The Running Man.
Richards takes Amber hostage, but she knees him in the little Arnold and he’s caught with a big net. Oh yeah — we also meet Mick Fleetwood as a resistance leader here. Remember how I said he played himself? Here’s my evidence. He states that the government has “burned my music” and his second-in-command is named Stevie, after Fleetwood Mac band member and former flame Stevie Nicks (but is played by Dweezil Zappa, who is also in Pretty in Pink and Jack Frost). In exchange for Killian not putting his friends into the game, Richards enters the contest, only to learn that it’s all a lie and they’ll all be part of The Running Man.
The game begins and immediately, Richards does something that’s never been done. No Runner has ever killed a Stalker, but he bests and kills Subzero (former pro wrestler Professor Tory Tanaka, who played just about every Asian henchman ever. He’s the butler in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, he’s one of the heavies in The Last Action Hero, he’s Rushmore in 3 Ninjas and his IMDB filmography has many roles that simply list him as “sumo wrestler” or “bodyguard.”).
Meanwhile, Amber learns from the news that the media’s presented truth does not line up with her memories — Richards is accused of killing numerous people that she did not see him murder. Her detective work gets her caught and now, she’s on the show.
Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch, Arnold the Barbarian from House 2) kills Laughlin before Richards dispatches him. Dynamo (played by Erland van Lidth, a classically trained baritone opera singer, swho is actually singing the aria that introduces himself), another Stalker, kills Weiss before Richards flips his buggy, trapping him. However, Richards refuses to kill him, which increases his popularity. As the downtrodden people of the U.S. regularly bet on the game, they suddenly stop betting on the Stalkers and bet on a Runner for the first time — to the anger of Killian.
Killian offers Richards a Stalker role, but gets turned down. In retaliation, he sends Fireball, one of the most famous Stalkers, after Ben and Amber. He’s played by Jim Brown, who knows about the world of blood and circuses, seeing as how he is a former NFL football star. Plus. he was also in The Dirty Dozen and Mars Attacks! Fireball’s pursuit takes them into an abandoned factory where they find the charred remains of past winners — all lies, as they were really killed by Fireball, who is killed by his own weapon.
Totally losing his mind, Killian wants to send the game’s biggest star, Captain Freedom (Jesse “The Body” Ventura from Predator) to take on Richards. Freedom refuses, so the show creates a CGI version of reality where Captain Freedom wins by killing off Richards and Amber.
Meanwhile, Mick Fleetwood finds our stars and helps them get into the control room, where Amber kills Dynamo and Richards reveals the truth. Killian begs for his life, as all he was doing was giving the people what they want — death and chaos. Ben refuses, sending Killian into the game zone, where his rocket sled hits a Cadre Cola billboard and explodes. Boom — a happy ending, as Ben and Amber romantically walk into the sunset, until you realize that their victory has changed absolutely nothing and society will just keep on being the same exact way.
Remember when I said this movie hasn’t aged well? I’d argue that it looks worse than the much smaller budgeted Warriors of the Year 2072. The costumes look cheap, the video screens look sadly composited and everything feels woefully low budget for a film that cost $27 million dollars to make.
And what of the claim that this film’s post-apocalyptic future is better than our own? One only has to watch the scene where Richards is caught at the airport. Today’s post 9/11 security checkpoints are way worse than anything the hero of this film encounters — he’s never frisked and the tourists freely walk onto the tarmac of the airport, just like folks once could.
Honestly, director Glaser was in well over his head. If a director like Paul Verhoeven was at the helm — like Arnold’s Total Recall — the sheer ridiculous nature of a game show controlling the world could have really been a winner. As it stands here, this is a fun film that makes you wish that it could be so much more — kind of like eating Buffalo wing flavored chips and wishing that they were really Buffalo wings.
In truth, life imitated art in this film, as it inspired the aforementioned American Gladiators and the dance routines were choreographed by future reality game show hostess Paula Abdul. And the Adidas sponsored costumes of the Runners hints at the days when everything would have a branded logo.
Other films like Death Row Gameshow, Gamer, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games would play in the same game zone as The Running Man. Of all the 80’s remakes, this one feels like the best case for a new, better version. Sadly, I think we’re going to see it in real life before we see it on the screen.