Sci-Fi Sundays is back, and this week Jonathon Dabell examines The Running Man (1987) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso and Richard Dawson.
When I saw The Running Man for the first time soon after its 1987 release, my first impression was that it was all rather far-fetched. I couldn’t quite take seriously this notion that the whole of society would ever reach a point where watching the hunting down and eventual slaying of some hand-picked fugitives would become a national past-time. It was a cool idea, but seemed to stretch the realms of believability just a shade too far. Ironically, time has made this film seem much more feasible than it did on initial release. OK, we might not have reached a point where live hunting-and-killing-of-humans is a real TV event, but our television tastes have certainly moved towards the sensationalising of human suffering, placing people in emotionally and psychologically stressful situations and observing how they cope, all for the entertainment of the masses sat comfortably at home. We watch celebrities enduring ordeals in the jungle; we see people living in a house for months on end while we watch their state of mind disintegrate and observe their every move; we enjoy increasingly elaborate gameshows in which people jump from aeroplanes or eat bugs or perform stunts for the chance to win a prize. From the comfort of our armchairs we call these shows “reality TV” – slowly but surely, the television diet of modern society draws that little bit closer to the extreme fare depicted in The Running Man.
The film may be cheesy and violent and jammed with questionable wisecracks, but there’s no denying that it has a certain prophetic quality about it.I
n 2017, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a military chopper pilot, is ordered to fire on innocent civilians to disperse a riot in the town of Bakersfield. Richards refuses to carry out the orders and is forcibly relieved of his command. While he is overpowered by other men in the chopper, another member of his team opens fire on the crowd and kills many of them.
Thanks to clever editing of footage of the massacre, it is Richards who is falsely blamed for the many deaths. He is branded “The Butcher Of Bakersfield” and placed in a high security prison in Los Angeles, where convicts wear neck tags which explode (taking their heads with them if anyone attempts to escape.Richards eventually makes a daring escape along with a couple of other convicts, Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin J. MacIntyre). It isn’t long before the trio are recaptured, but instead of being executed or returned to prison they are subjected to an even worse fate. They become unwilling contestants on a futuristic gameshow called The Running Man, in which convicts are sent into an abandoned district of the city and pursued among the ruins by some heavily-armed celebrity killers named Stalkers. The gameshow is a TV ratings hit, adored by the public who gamble on its outcome whilst glued to the carnage on their screens. Its presenter is a slimy host named Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a man so obsessed with maintaining the record-breaking ratings of his show that he is quite happy to hoodwink the public about the true machinations of the show and the fate of the contestants.
Richards turns the tables on Killian and the corrupt TV network by defeating the various adversaries sent in to kill him. As the stakes get higher, Richards senses a chance to fight back, possibly even to clear his name, and maybe just maybe destroy the integrity of the sinister show.
The central premise of the film is pretty good, as you would expect from a story taken from the mind of Stephen King (he wrote the original novel, under his pseudonym Richard Bachman). In some ways, the philosophical and moral implications of the story, the thought-provoking ideas it tries to throw up, are rather neglected in favour of routine thrills. It’s a Schwarzenegger movie after all, and fans want and expect to see the Austrian Oak dispensing justice and wasting bad guys. With this in mind, director Paul Michael Glaser (more famous for starring as Starsky in TV’s Starsky And Hutch) opts for the cheesy action approach. Schwarzenegger disposes of each Stalker in bloody fashion, often with an amusing quip, causing havoc as he leads his pursuers on a merry dance through the ruins and rubble. Some of his wisecracks are funny, others are downright cringeworthy. As an action hero, his physique is suitably intimidating; but in moments where greater subtlety is required his limitations are more evident. Dawson does a fine job as the sleazy gameshow host, bringing believable callousness and arrogance to the role. There are strong roles also for Yahet Kotto, Maria Conchita Alonso (an innocent woman whose name is besmirched deliberately so that she can be sent into the game arena and Jim Brown (playing Fireball, one of the celebrity killers out to kill Richards in the game zone).
The sets – a derelict wasteland of ruins and industrial detritus – are impressively designed, and the frequent action set pieces are handled with a fair amount of verve. The Running Man is definitely one for action afficionados, and its a solidly entertaining film with several neat ideas and a cynical view of humankind. Beneath the surface it hints at a really fascinating and bleak view of the future of our planet, especially the future of popular entertainment, but it falls agonisingly short of exploring these things in a really meaningful way. The action-man heroics win out in the end and the movie ultimately settles for being a futuristic action flick. It’s decent enough, for sure, but it could have been oh so much more.
MoM Rating 6/10