Written by Steven E. de Souza.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Mick Fleetwood and Jesse Ventura.
R, 101 minutes.
The basic premise behind The Running Man was nothing new to audiences even when it was released. Those at all familiar with the science fiction genre were undoubtedly aware of films like Rollerball or, perhaps to a lesser extent, Death Race 2000. Both brought a different sensibility to their similar premises, the individual against society set within a world where televised sporting events can easily result in death. The Running Man is no different, but whereas the aforementioned films were violent, scathing and smart, Schwarzenegger’s action vehicle is just violent, scathing and fairly dumb.
Loosely based on the novel by Richard Bachman (a pen name for Stephen King), The Running Man takes place in the year 2019, where paramilitary forces control the planet. All forms of art have been censored, a vast majority of the population is going hungry and the television is used to pacify audiences. The most popular show is The Running Man, a brutal gladiatorial game show where incarcerated people are pitted against “stalkers,” men with varying costume themes who are selected by audience members to track down today’s “runners” and fight them to the death.
The action begins when Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger), a soldier for the police force, finds himself imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Breaking out of the detention center, his attempts to flee prove unsuccessful and he’s put on The Running Man by its host, Killian (Richard Dawson), a repellent man who wears his fake congenial manner so well you would think he was hosting something harmless like Family Feud (which the real-life actor was the host for).
The game is structured around the “runners” being shut through some network of tunnels in a pod. When they land, one lucky audience member gets to choose their favorite “stalker” to attack. The stalkers are Sub-Zero, dressed as a hockey goalie, Dynamo, singing opera with a circuit of lights as a costume, Buzzsaw, who wields a chainsaw, and Fireball, who you can probably guess what he does.
Following forty minutes of setting up this incisive, if not a little unbelievable, satirical future, the film devolves into a repetitive actioner, with each “stalker” coming out of the woodwork to fight Arnold until he’s face to face with the show’s host. I say a little unbelievable in the sense that I never truly bought the commoners’ bloodlust for the show like the movie wants us to. Everyone in this movie lacks empathy. Even Arnold, who’s supposed to be the good guy is all too willing to indulge in murdering the stalkers once the game gets going almost without any hesitation.
If The Running Man doesn’t work as science fiction, as a warning of what’s to come in the future, then it most certainly works as a time capsule of the decade in which it was made. Dating the movie in the most wonderful ways, we’ve got Ahnold spewing out the one-liners, Harold Faltermeyer’s electronic score, Paula Abdul-choreographed leotard-clad dancers and a hair metal jam playing over the end credits.
The Running Man doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be taken seriously as science fiction, and yet, as an action film, takes itself too seriously to work as a humorous commentary on its own subject.
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