Film Review: The Running Man (1987)

Watching Arnie when he was in his 80’s heyday is a powerful, elemental experience, as it equates to watching the birth of a legend. Of course, tough guys and big bruisers have always occupied the screen, but almost never has cinematic bloodletting been paired with so much affable joy.

This quality, which has served the big guy well since he started indiscriminately slaughtering people on-screen, is at the forefront of 1987’s The Running Man. It also proves to be the film’s saving grace. Based off an early dystopian novel by a young Stephen King (going under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman), The Running Man is competent albeit disposable entertainment.

Possessing a pulpy, future shock set up, The Running Man is about the after effects of America’s financial collapse and descent into a totalitarian nation-state. While following our own real-world, economic collapse we soaked up brainless superhero drivel and vapid reality TV, the world depicted here is placated by a game show called The Running Man – which features brutal, gladiatorial action.

Adapted by scribe Steven E. de Souza (who takes more liberties than one can count), the film jettisons much of the complexity of King’s novel, turning the central character of Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) from a desperate family man into a hardened police pilot. The film also jumps right into the action, opening with a scene of Schwarzenegger’s Richards being unjustly framed for a crime. Two years later, after breaking out of a hellish, industrial prison, Richards attempts to enlist the help of a woman named Amber Mandez (Maria Conchita Alonso), who instead reports him to the authorities.

Following his arrest, Schwarznegger’s character finds himself in the clutches of the unscrupulous Killian (Richard Dawson), who views him as a perfect addition to the titular Running Man show. Things unsurprisingly don’t go quite according to plan for this nefarious producer, much to the audience’s delight and to his chagrin.

Judging by how the film turned out, Paul M. Glaser (who would go on to direct lauded titles like Kazzaam and The Air Up There) was far more interested in The Running Man’s action set pieces than in any sort of expository world-building. Complex ideas regarding the possibility of rebellion get barely a mention, and the film never even attempts to extrapolate on how the good ol’ USA became such a bloodthirsty cesspool.

Instead, Glaser places us predominately inside The Running Man game, where Richard, along with two (weaker) companions from his prison days, are forced to face down a slew of “hunters:” garishly dressed hitmen who are out to bump them off. These scenes are shot in a workman-like, utilitarian fashion and set in what appears to be a mixture of a bombed out amusement park and a municipal dump. It’s a war zone a world away from the lush foliage and breathtaking color of its thematic successor: last year’s Hunger Games – Catching Fire.

Glaser dosen’t really do anything to enliven these aesthetics; the action being hardly what one could call riveting. This banality is surprising considering how each hunter who enters the game is endowed with a ridiculous and outlandish shtick. Some of these characters are jaw-dropping in their goofiness, such as Dynamo (played by the late Erland Van Lidth De Jeude), an electric-based villain who is covered in what looks like hundreds of Lite-Brite pegs. Almost as bad as this is Fireball, a stoic killer who apes the garb and weapons of Firefly, one of Batman’s baddies.

Of course, when facing down someone as powerful as Arnie it becomes even more important to create worthy antagonists. Luckily for Glaser and his film, Schwarzenegger (and his inimitable charisma) is more than able to compensate for The Running Man’s uninspired brawls. The physicality of his work in the film is entirely absorbing. Yet, it is his lines and the way they are delivered which makes The Running Man occasionally spectacular.

From his ice-cold delivery of, “I don’t do requests.” (after Killian has snarled for him to “drop dead”), to making completely nonsensical remarks after killing hunters (“Here is Subzero. Now… PLAINzero!”), The Running Man represents Arnold at his gleeful, killing-machine best. It’s an infectious performance, embodying all of the tropes now seen as synonymous with the actor.

The specific type of wanton violence doled out in The Running Man is also starkly different from much of what is now commonplace in cinemas. Devoid of any real moral introspection, some of the scenes are remarkable in how complicit they make the audience. One such moment involves Arnie ambushing an adversary and then brutally burning him alive after grinning and quipping, “Can I give you a light?” Scenes such as this, which may seem ugly or grotesque on their own, become joyful moments of cathartic release when one is led by Schwarzenegger’s capable persona.

They also illuminate how lost this film would be without him. Unlike many of his other 80’s efforts (Predator, The Terminator, Commando) The Running Man is not a great film, or one where Schwarzenegger is just one great part of a fantastic whole. Here he is the whole film, but (like always) he’s enough.

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