The Running Man (1987)

The Running Man by Richard Bachman, a.k.a. Stephen King

“It’s showtime!”

Dir. Paul Michael Glaser

Runtime: 101 minutes

Rating: 18

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson

Released the same year as “Predator“, “The Running Man” is loosely based on the novel by the same name, written by Stephen King under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. Something that not everybody realises though – did you see the name of the director for this film? Did you recognise the name? Maybe you aren’t old enough?! Paul Michael Glaser, as in “Starsky” or “Detective Dave Starsky” from “Starsky and Hutch” – the TV Cop show which ran through the 1970’s. The writer and director aren’t the only names that surprise people when it comes to this film, as you find out later in this review.


In the year 2019 the World is different place. America is a militarized police state where individual freedoms don’t exist. The arts, literature, and communications are heavily censored and monitored by the state. Citizens do what they are told and live how the government allows them to. Owning all broadcasting TV channels the state uses them to play out its own messages and propaganda. The most successful TV program of the day is “The Running Man”. It acts as a way to control and execute criminals, but also to villainize people the government doesn’t want on the streets any more in case of inspiring a revolution or uprising. A Police office is about to find himself the unwilling next contender on the show. After he defies the orders of superiors to kill peaceful protesters while on duty in Bakersfield, California, he is subdued and imprisoned by his colleagues. After a jailbreak he is recaptured and framed for the murder. As a result, he put in “The Running Man” show to that America will hate him and he can be killed without a backlash. Ex-Officer Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) promises the game show host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), that he’ll “be back” – but if that’s the case he’ll have to navigate the maze of mayhem and death, outwit some of the gameshow’s famous ‘stalkers’, and make a decision about helping an underground resistance which could ultimately shape the future of America too. Can he do it?

… or… here’s a Summary in 180 characters or less…

Convicted for a crime he didn’t commit; an ex-policeman is put into a reality TV show. There’s a slim chance he could win his freedom, but he’ll have to keep running to earn it.

This 1980’s action packed adventure isn’t just about brawn, blood, and guts – although it does have a lot of that in it. There’s nice dystopian world has been created (in the context of the film), and the film does follow a good plot too. In addition, the characters can’t just use muscle and bullets to solve the problems, there is a need for a certain amount of intelligence too. The world that we see is not too far from what we have now in reality with government-controlled media, laws against certain protests and free thinking, and even reality TV too. The only difference is that the reality TV of “The Running Man” is almost a gladiatorial death match that has been set up for the state to appease the masses and keep them entertained – in our real world of course, we haven’t gone as far as having contestants murdered live on air (not unless you watch terrorist video streams).

The acting is good fun. Schwarzenegger is as good in this as he is his other roles. By the time this film came along he had stepped out of doing straight up action films with little/no dialogue to ones where dialogue was more important. In this he delivers his performance authentically and has some fun one-liners. He plays Ben Richards, the “Bakersfield Butcher” to the brainwashed masses watching the show, but we, the external audience, know that he’s been lied to and set up. The film is clever in handling his character – everyone remembers the “Running” part of the film, but it’s at least half an hour before he is injected into the gameshow. Prior to that the plot is set up nicely; firstly, in his former life as a police officer, then in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It doesn’t waste any time though, the beginning of the film is tight and moves with pace from working to imprisoned. We see him escape and go on the run; and then we see him drafted into the game show as a prisoner. To further twist the knife, we see that everyone who has helped him is also set up too. He is initially promised that if he enters, then his friends and accomplices will be safe. Moments before being injected into the gameshow though we see that this was a lie too and they are sentenced to the same fate. With all the build up in the plot and character development it is easy to get behind him and root for the wronged man.

The supporting cast is great in the film and there some surprising names to be found within the film. Richard Dawson plays game show host Damon Killian, which is a nice twist. More known for TV appearances than film, Dawson was actual the host of American gameshow “Family Feud”, which is the equivalent to the UK’s “Family Fortune”. He is basically playing a role which he performed weekly for nearly 10 years, so it all seems fluid and natural in the film. His “Stalkers” are Fireball (Jim Brown), Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura), Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), and Subzero (Professor Toru Tanaka) – actors who in most cases have appeared with Arnie before, or were set to be featured in their futures after this film.

Maria Conchita Alonso (Amber Mendez), Marvin J. McIntyre (Harold Weiss), and Yaphet Kotto (William Laughlin), as Arnie’s fellow “Runners”, are all credible in their roles too. Kotto had already tasted success in the likes of “Alien” (1979) and “Live and Let Die” (1973), while McIntyre and Alonso would go onto have illustrious careers of their own.

Some random facts…

Dweezil Zappa, son of Frank Zappa, and Fleetwood Mac’s own Mick Fleetwood also appear in the film. Fleetwood wanted to play himself and one of the lines he has suggests he got his wish; “You’re one of the cops who locked up all my friends, burned my songs.” Meanwhile Zappa only got two lines, both of which are tied to his father’s musical career.

This film inspired the creation of “American Gladiators” (1989) in the USA, and then later “Gladiators” (1992) in the UK. It also inspired “You Bet!” (1988) which was initially hosted by Bruce Forsyth and then later Matthew Kelly. And as well as TV, it also inspired the Williams arcade game “Smash TV” (1990).

The dancing in the film was choreographed by pop star Paula Abdul. Many of the dancers were from the Laker Girls (all-female National Basketball Association Cheerleading squad).

The “Professor” title in Professor Tanaka name isn’t a qualification based title, it’s taken from a character he portrayed in his wrestling career with the WWF (now WWE) from 1960 – 1980. He isn’t the only ex-wrestler here with Jesse Ventura having being a big draw for wrestling fans too.

Listen carefully and you might hear “Squidward Tentacle” from “SpongeBob SquarePants” doing the voice overs in Killian’s studio. That’s because Rodger Bumpass is playing the voice over man Phil Hilton.

As well as the horrors that unfold on screen, some of the additional horrors come from the fact that the film seems to predict some future events and technology. Not just government controlled media outlets and reality TV – voice activated technology similar to Alexa that can turn on lights/TV; enemies of the state disappearing or being ‘dealt with’; the collapse of economy in certain parts of the World; food shortages and starvation; greed, mass consumerism, objectification, valuing materialistic possessions; technology that allows identity to be tracked or even faked… [takes a deep breath]… but you aren’t here for that are you – this is a film review after all.

This futuristic Sci-Fi action film from the 1980’s is great, not just as a vehicle for Arnold to be an action star, but as an entertaining film too. It’s one of my favourite Arnie films and has a good mix of action to compliment the story and the highly quotable dialogue. High on action, well written, and with a decent soundtrack – this Starksy film… I mean, this film by Paul Michael Glaser works well (despite reservations Arnie had about the director too!). If you haven’t seen this (where have you been), then I’d highly recommend it. This is more than a dumb action film which sees a muscle-bound commando fight a man covered is Christmas tree lights or and ice skater with a razor stick – there is a great story that is intelligently played out. Don’t worry though, it’s not that highbrow that you can’t just leave your brain at the door and enjoy the on-screen antics.  

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (8/10)

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