Directed By: Paul Michael Glaser
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto
Tag line: "The year is 2019. The finest men in America don't run for President. They run for their lives"
Trivia: When Rob Cohen purchased the rights to the Richard Bachman novella 'The Running Man', he had no idea that Bachman was actually a pseudonym for Stephen King
Before I get into my write-up of The Running Man, I want to take a moment to relate the unfortunate events that surrounded my first viewing of this film.
It was in the fall of 1987. I, along with two of my friends and my younger brother, went to a local multiplex to see The Running Man. My friends, Chris and John, were with me when I saw Predator (released a few months earlier), which we caught down at the Jersey shore during Senior Week. And all three of us loved it. My brother had yet to experience a Schwarzenegger film, so we figured he was in for a treat.
But we ran into a problem; when we went to buy our tickets, one of the women behind the counter, a middle-aged lady we’d never seen before, wouldn’t sell my brother (16 at the time) a ticket because The Running Man was rated “R”! We told her John was 19, and therefore qualified as an “accompanying adult” (as the rating said, “No one under 18 admitted unless accompanied by an adult”), but still she refused.
Slightly pissed off, we got out of line to figure out what we were going to do. Chris suggested we instead see the PG-13 rated Dirty Dancing, which was also playing. My immediate response was “Bullshit!” No way would I settle for Dirty Dancing when I was all hyped up to watch Schwarzenegger kick some ass. So, we split into two groups; John and I bought tickets for The Running Man, and Chris and my brother paid for Dirty Dancing.
And the woman watched us like a hawk, making sure they didn’t sneak into the theater with us (clearly, she was on some sort of a crusade; my brother told me later that night that, just before Dirty Dancing started, she walked through the theater telling anyone under 13 to leave… even the kids who were with their parents!)
Set in the futuristic world of 2017 (yeah, I know), when America is controlled by a totalitarian regime that regulates everything from how much food you eat to what you watch on TV, The Running Man opens with army pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) refusing to fire on a group of civilians, who are rioting in the streets below. As a result of his insubordination, Richards is arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to a labor camp, where, after a year or so, he, along with fellow prisoners William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Harold Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre), stages a mass breakout.
On the run from the cops, Richards hides out in his brother’s apartment, only to learn his brother was evicted a month earlier, and that musician Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) now lives there. Using her ID, Richards buys 2 airline tickets to Hawaii and forces Amber to accompany him, but she turns him in at the airport before they can board the plane.
While this is going on, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), host of the incredibly popular game show The Running Man, is looking for a new contestant. A reality-based program, The Running Man pits lowlifes and prisoners against professional assassins (known as “Stalkers”). Each “contestant” is set loose in a quarantined section of Los Angeles, and must survive for 3 hours to win the game (and their freedom). But it won’t be easy; the heavily-armed Stalkers could be lurking around any corner, ready to kill them without a moment’s notice.
Impressed with the surveillance footage of his prison escape, Killian recruits Richards to be his next contestant, and to make it more interesting sends both Laughlin and Weiss into the “game” with him. As the three men battle against stalkers such as Sub-Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), and Dynamo (Erland van Lidth), Amber begins to question whether or not she did the right thing by turning Richards in, and starts digging into his past, only to be caught and sent into the game area herself!
With three people to look after now, Richards takes the fight to the Stalkers, causing a bit of embarrassment for Killian and the network when he manages to defeat a few. With a live studio audience, and millions of people at home, watching their every move, Richards and the others look for a way to gain control of the satellite feed, hoping to show the world what both Killian and the government have been doing behind the scenes. But will they survive long enough to spread the message?
Based on a novel by Stephen King (written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Running Man is an entertaining sci-fi / action hybrid, with great set designs and a cool-as-hell story about an ultra-violent, government-sponsored TV show. In addition, the movie has Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the brink of becoming a major box-office draw, doing what he did best. The scene where Richards and his cohorts escape from prison is definitely exciting, but is nothing compared to what they go through while running for their lives in the “game”.
Each of the Stalkers chasing them has their weapon of choice (Subzero’s hockey stick has an actual blade built into it, while Buzzsaw uses a chainsaw that can cut steel), and dress as if they were on their way to a Halloween party (Domino is in full-body armor with hundreds of little lights attached to it). But despite their spotless record (we’re led to believe no Stalker has ever been so much as injured in the line of duty), these guys are in for the fight of their life against Richards. Whenever he subdues a Stalker, Arnold delivers one of his patented one-liners, a few of which are real groaners (“Hey Killian! Subzero... now plain zero!”), but throughout The Running Man Schwarzenegger shows us time and again why, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was the biggest action star around (his battle against Fireball, a Stalker played by Jim Brown, is bad-ass).
Yet as good as Arnold is, Richard Dawson steals The Running Man right out from under him. Having spent years as the host of the popular game show Family Feud, Dawson was the perfect choice to portray the egotistical Killian, a guy who is more concerned with ratings than he is justice, or even human life. We see early on just how much of a bastard he is; while walking through the network’s main lobby, an elderly janitor accidentally runs a mop over Killian’s shoes. As the poor guy is apologizing, Killian turns on the charm, telling him not to worry about it, and that he’s doing a great job. But once he’s in the elevator, Killian turns to his assistant Brenda (Karen Leigh Hopkins) and says “If that asshole is still mopping the floor tomorrow, you’ll be doing it the rest of the week”. Whether trying to coerce Richards into being his next contestant or working his studio audience into a frenzy, Killian is a creep of the highest order, and Dawson plays him to perfection.
It wasn’t until almost 15 years later that I finally saw Dirty Dancing, and I have to say I was glad I made the decision I did back in 1987. Dirty Dancing may be a halfway decent musical / romance, but it isn’t nearly as much fun as The Running Man!