Movie Review: The Running Man (1987)

Comic/harsh political satire nails our time _ 8/10

Damon Killian: This is television, that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with people, it’s to do with ratings! For fifty years, we’ve told them what to eat, what to drink, what to wear… for Christ’s sake, Ben, don’t you understand? Americans love television. They wean their kids on it. Listen. They love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports and violence. So what do we do? We give ’em *what they want*! We’re number one, Ben, that’s all that counts, believe me. I’ve been in the business for thirty years.

Damon Killian: Hello, this is Killian. Give me the Justice Department… Entertainment Division.

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser
Novel Stephen King
Screenplay Steven E. de Souza

Arnold Schwarzenegger … Ben Richards
Maria Conchita Alonso … Amber Mendez
Yaphet Kotto … William Laughlin
Jim Brown … Fireball
Jesse Ventura … Captain Freedom
Erland van Lidth … Dynamo
Gus Rethwisch … Buzzsaw
Professor Toru Tanaka … Subzero
Mick Fleetwood … Mic
Dweezil Zappa … Stevie
Richard Dawson … Damon Killian
Karen Leigh Hopkins … Brenda

Phil Hilton: *The Running Man* has been brought to you by: Breakaway Paramilitary Uniforms, Ortopure Procreation Pill, and Cadre Cola; it hits the spot! Promotional considerations paid for by: Kelton Flame Throwers, Wainwright Electrical Launchers, and Hammond & Gage Chainsaws. Damon Killian’s wardrobe by Chez Antoinne: 19th-Century craftsmanship for the 21st-Century man. Cadre Trooper and studio-guard side arms provided by Colchester: the pistol of patriots. Tickets for the ICS studio tour are always available for Class-A citizens in good standing. If you’d like to be a contestant on THE RUNNING MAN, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: ICS Talent Hunt, care of your local affiliate, and then go out and do something really despicable! I’m Phil Hilton! Good night, and take care!

Yes, you read correctly the source of The Running Man is a novel by the amazing Stephen King. I’m sure it would be an entertaining read, because the movie version effectively captures several key ideas about a police-state society that has descended to complete corporate-state mind-control and the barbarism of video ‘bread and circuses.’ To my mind, the setup scenes for the story—an archetypical antilibertarian dystopia in which anyone can become an enemy of the state instantly—are the most damning of our own world: a crassly commercialized (mainly sports and sex) prison planet.

It’s amazing that King had our world so totally imagined in 1982. All the pieces are in place now: constant worldwide war against nebulous enemies, a corporate media compliant with any deception or false flag operation the security state wishes to execute—from WMDs in Iraq to slaying Osama bin Laden 10 years after his death—, expropriation of the masses to the point they can only afford to flip the switch on their credit-card-purchased (HD) boob tubes… to follow their latest ‘reality’ shows or zillionaire athletes. If it’s on TV, or if everyone on TV says it’s true, it’s true. No questions asked, at least not by anyone patriotic.

The plot is straightforward: Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a law-enforcement helicopter pilot, who is ordered to fire on civilians in a food riot. He declines, and as a consequence he’s subdued and hundreds of men, women, and children are mercilessly mowed down. Richards, now an enemy of the state, is charged with the crime and sent to the gulag. It’s a high-tech prison where the inmates are grossly mistreated; they wear deadly electronic collars that are activated when intersecting the fields between automated sentries. But Richards hooks up with a few of the resistance and escapes. Stuff happens, he’s recaptured, and comes to the attention of Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), emcee of the #1 show on television: The Running Man.

The idea of the running man is to take a prisoner from the gulag or someone truly evil, use or make up a story of just how horrible the individual is, then have him set upon by a series of assassins like:

  • Subzero (Toru Tanaka)—uses a long cold scythe to slash his victims to death
  • Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch)—rides a motorcycle while wielding a chainsaw to cut the runners down
  • Dynamo (Erland van Lidth)—opera singing killer who zaps people with electric charges
  • Fireball (Jim Brown)—flamethrower guy who even has an asbestos suit to prevent being toasted himself

Finally there’s Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura), the killer of last resort, who is simply a brute who throws the victims around and destroys them with his bare hands. Yet unlike the others, Freedom ultimately has some honor, and doesn’t follow all the orders coming from Killian and the show’s sleazy bosses.

The setting is similar to Gladiator, with the moderator creating a perverse world of good and evil, pandering to the crowd that the state likes to think it has turned into helpless zombies. But what happens if the gladiator actually breaks through his adversaries, then defeats the lies of the system itself? That is the question. And that is the serious side of this seriocomic movie. On the other side, the film is full of humor and clever satire; I liken it to the underrated Sylvester Stallone effort, Demolition Man. The action is actually fairly believable considering this age of special effects and movies like Transformers and Batman. You’ll enjoy the .007ish quips such as:

  • Ben Richards: [after strangling Sub-Zero with barbed wire)] What a pain in the neck.
  • Amber: [after Richards cut Buzzsaw in half with a chain saw] What happened to Buzzsaw?
    Ben Richards: He had to split.
  • Amber: [seeing Fireball enter the game] Jesus Christ!
    Ben Richards: [seeing Fireball discharge a burst from his flamethrower] Guess again!
  • Ben Richards: [to Damon] Hey, Killian! Here’s Subzero! Now… plain zero!
    Damon Killian: [sadly] Ladies and Gentlemen, this is… just horrible. Words can’t express what we’re all feeling at this very moment. A great champion has fallen. We’ll be back right after these important messages.

Unfortunately, during the first iteration of my review the software crashed, and I lost more than an hour’s worth of writing (a lot of which I think was decent). I won’t be duplicating some of the better observations—particularly on how it doesn’t take much to kindle or SunFLOWerrekindle the flame of freedom when the system has been smashing the people for decades. There’s quite a bit about The Running Man that’s inspirational, in these days of Amerika.

It’s refreshing, inspiring, and funny, well done. Good writing.

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