Written by Steven E. de Souza and directed by Paul Michael Glaser, “The Running Man” is a sci-fi adjacent action movie adapted from the novel of the same name by Stephen King. The novel, from what I can tell with some light internet research, is VERY different from this adaption with the core concept alone surviving the transition. Which makes perfect sense after giving this one a watch, casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as the main character of a Stephen King novel adaption in the 1980’s wouldn’t have made much sense unless you were going to drastically change the nature of the story. Mostly set during 2019 (appropriately) two years after a worldwide economic collapse, the United States has degraded into a totalitarian nightmare. The government uses TV game shows to keep the public pacified through violence and carnage. The most popular game show is ‘The Running Man’, where convicted criminals must evade armed mercenaries for a chance at parole- or a grisly death!
A police helicopter pilot by the name of Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is flying above Bakersfield, California, with his crew when he’s given orders from his superiors to fire into a sizable crowd of citizens engaging in a “food riot”. When he refuses, his crew members on board get their own orders to restrain Richards and to quell the rioters with a barrage of bullets. So the system committed a massacre, blamed it on Richards, and threw him in a labor camp for his revolt. After some time he escapes from the camp with two resistance fighters named Harold Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre) and William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto). They make it to one of the resistance camps, but Richards decides to seek shelter at his brother’s apartment not far from the camp. There he meets Amber Mendez (María Conchita Alonso), the new tenant that took up residence after Richards’ brother was taken for “re-education”. Richards then takes Amber hostage and tries to hop a flight to Hawaii, but she outs him to airport security and he’s quickly scooped up by the ICS broadcasting company. Having viewed the footage of Richards escaping the labor camps, Killian (Richard Dawson), the host of ‘The Running Man’, chooses to snatch Richards up before the government can have him- as he’s the perfect candidate for his game show.
Killian coerces Richards to play the game in exchange for his two resistance fighter friends’ safety, which is, of course, a lie. Killian has tracked down Weiss and Laughlin and made them game contestants as well. At this betrayal, Richards swears revenge before Killian sends them down the tubes and into the game. In the abandoned parts of Los Angeles that are the game zone, Richards and his friends keep moving as they’re pursued by the stalkers. Out in the world, Amber sees footage of Richards being captured for ‘The Running Man’ and realizes that the advertisement was doctored and begins to question whether Richards was telling the truth and investigates. After some sleuthing, she discovers that Richards was framed for the Bakersfield Massacre, but she’s quickly caught by the ICS security and thrown into the game for her punishment. After Richards, Weiss, and Laughlin kill Sub-Zero, the first stalker to be dispatched in the show’s history, they begin to search for ICS network’s uplink tech, which they believe to be in the area. Amber catches up with the three and shares her discovery, they then split up as two more stalkers are sent after them.
The majority of the film takes place in the game zone of ‘The Running Man’, and it’s a fairly entertaining time if you’re into cheesy action oriented movies from the eighties. There’s some fun one-liners from Arnold, gratuitous violence involving chainsaws and flamethrowers, and some genuinely fun arch villain acting from Richard Dawson as Killian, who was the first host of “Family Feud”- great casting with that part! The movie also correctly predicted several aspects of what modern society might be dealing with in the year 2019, though not nearly to the degree that the movie suggests. “The Running Man” predicted “deep-fake” technologies and correctly suggested that the people of 2019 would be having huge societal issues with the truth and misdirection due to ever-advancing technologies. It also predicted economic collapse, the disparity between the rich and the poor, and our collective obsession with “reality” TV. While this one may not be the most intellectually engaging, and not exactly the peak of Arnold’s action movies to come out of the eighties, it IS a fun time and a perfectly fine way to spend a rainy (or snowy) night in.
Final Score: 4 Stalkers & 1 Running Man