What do exploding hockey pucks, an electrically-charged opera-singing killer, and Arnold Schwarzenegger have in common?
1987’s The Running Man, a dystopian scifi film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in his action-movie prime, only a few years after his breakout role in 1984’s The Terminator. The film is very loosely based on a short story by Stephen King and apparently has little to do with its source material at all.
The Running Man imagines a dystopian future in which an oppressive totalitarian government has outlawed all forms of art and media expression except for its own propaganda network ICS. ICS keeps the people distracted and under control with its bloodthirsty reality-competition shows. The most popular of these shows is The Running Man (the number one show in the world!) in which convicts are chased through a closed off area of the city by professional killers called Stalkers.
After disobeying an order to fire on unarmed civilians in the midst of a food riot, government officer Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is thrown in prison and ultimately scooped up by a conniving producer as the next contestant on The Running Man.
That’s when things go completely bonkers. The Stalkers chasing Richards include such ridiculous characters as Sub Zero, a giant Japanese man who, as the TV host says, “slices his enemies limb from limb into quivering bloody sushi!” His weapons of choice include exploding hockey pucks and a bladed hockey stick because why not?
Other Stalkers include the opera-singing Dynamo, who wears a hilarious LED-covered vest and shoots electrical bolts, and the chainsaw-wielding Buzzsaw who looks like the unholy offspring of Hulk Hogan and Leatherface. Even by 80s standards this is some crazy stuff. In fact, it’s so crazy and excessive that it often feels like a parody of the 1980s scifi-action subgenre.
On top of that, the writing and acting is embarrassingly bad with the exception of Richard Dawson who is clearly having a blast playing over-the-top baddie Damon Killian. Schwarzenegger is unfortunately pretty bland in this film, delivering non-stop one-liners that would be amusing if they weren’t so cringe-inducing. By the time it got to the ridiculous finale I just did not care anymore.
It’s unfortunate that the film has the subtlety of a jack hammer since the concept is ripe for some thoughtful commentary on media, violence, and spectatorship. However, the film is really only interested in using its reality show concept as an excuse to string together increasingly ridiculous action set pieces with the bare minimum of a plot. This might be ok if the action was creative and memorable, but it generally falls flat and fails to generate any excitement whatsoever.
Nevertheless, some of the film’s predictions about reality television are prescient given that the film came out years before reality TV became a popular form of entertainment. In the film, the network creates a fake backstory for Richards and frames him for a civilian massacre he had refused to participate in. Later, the nefarious producer, Damon Killian, manipulates the “reality” of the show, faking Richards’ death when his survival proves problematic. The falseness of the “reality” presented to the masses has obvious parallels to today’s reality shows, which often embellish characters and stage confrontations and situations. Similarly, the sadistic voyeurism of the Running Man audience finds its contemporary equivalent in many of today’s reality shows, which thrive on their own particular brands of schadenfreude.
All in all, The Running Man is a prime example of the 1980s scifi-action excess. It just doesn’t know what to do with its strong central concept. Much like the reality show at its heart, the movie spins hopelessly out of control in its relentless pursuit of over-the-top spectacle. In doing so, it loses sight of its greater themes and devolves into high camp, missing an opportunity for social critique.
The Running Man was not the first or the last film about the dangers of reality television and it’s most interesting when viewed against other films in this thematic family. You can see its influence on the novel series and now blockbuster franchise The Hunger Games, which shares some similarities in plot, but for a much more prophetic and existential vision of reality TV, check out the brilliant The Truman Show.
Rotten Tomatoes: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/running_man/