The Running Man (1987)

Directed by Paul Michael Glaser

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I say this affectionately, but The Running Man is one of the worst films I think I’ve ever seen.  I’m sure there is a lot about that statement that’s quite unfair, but jeez it’s tough to get through.  The very very 80’s movie is loaded with cliches, tropes, underwhelming quips, poor acting, poor world construction and no fun whatsoever.  It’s a movie that could be quite entertaining if it embraced the silly, but I don’t think it ever quite did.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has more than a few cheesy remarks as he’s about to enact revenge on someone, but even those don’t land.  Instead we watch a hastily told story unfold with nothing interesting to back it up.  It’s a story you’ve seen a hundred times before and since, and it’s almost a parody of itself but again there’s nothing attention grabbing about it.

Well, I’m sure it is a good movie to watch with a group of friends, preferably while playing a drinking game.  The movie is ridiculous, but a movie that ridiculous shouldn’t also be that boring.

The movie takes place thirty years in the future, in the imagined world of 2017.  The disturbing, violent future is reminiscent of Blade Runner and other ‘government is evil’ 80’s movies like Escape From New York.  In these stories the world has become corrupted, a totalitarian vision of a government with far too much control and too much bloodlust.  These worlds willingly massacre the poor and lie about it if they feel it’s even worth notifying the public.

“The Running Man” is the most famous tv show in this future.  It’s a reality show in which criminals are given a chance at a reduced sentence or outright absolution should they defeat a series of gladiators.  These enforcers have names like Subzero, Buzzsaw, Dynamo, Captain Freedom and Fireball.

Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is a cop who refuses to massacre 1,500 unarmed protestors and as a result is beaten unconscious, thrown into prison and blamed for the subsequent massacre of the 1,500 unarmed protesters.  This gives him the nickname “The Bakersfield Butcher.”  When we next see him in prison, Richards carries out an escape plan that gets dozens of people killed (and gets one man’s head blown off), and this is all before the movie’s opening credits roll.

Richards becomes the most famous criminal in Los Angeles, so the creator of The Running Man program, Damon Killian, has him captured and forces him to participate in his Hunger Games-esque program, all before a live studio audience.

A series of gladiators are sent to kill him, and Richards defeats them all, slowly earning the public’s respect, which is odd considering they believe him to be the person responsible for killing 1,500 people.  I mean, we know he didn’t do it, so we’re supposed to root for him, but the fictional audience?

Of course they will soon learn of his innocence.  As he fights for his life he also carries out a mission to expose Killian’s lies (and thus the lies of the government as a whole).  This is a world with propaganda and outright bullish*t manipulating public sentiment.  I hate to give this movie any credit, because I thought it was awful, but it is unfortunately quite topical for what’s going on now.

The point of the movie, other than to give Schwarzenegger another vehicle in which he can flex his muscle, is to show how easily the masses can be misinformed.  The world of The Running Man is essentially a dictatorship, and even though we don’t see much of the government, we do understand that the most powerful force in this world is the reality tv show host.  He might as well be the president/dictator.

These 80s movies are fascinating because they have this common theme of the government as the enemy.  Usually we’re told that such circumstances in these imagined futures came about as a result to an extreme crackdown on violence.  The antagonist is not the initial violence or the criminals but rather the force trying to put a stop to it.  They eventually decide that it’s better to be safe and remove individual freedoms then to let people run rampant and maybe do some damage.

The best of these movies is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  It imagines a similar disturbed future but shows that the violence remains.  The only difference is that the people of that future mostly just ignore the violence.  The message seems to be that no matter what kind of barriers you build up in the name of self-preservation, the danger will still find a way to make itself known, and the only effect is that we will become more desensitized to such destruction.  Basically, we’re building barriers that don’t protect us but just neuter our spirits and free will.  We are imprisoning ourselves.

The Running Man contains such ideas, but it borrows the world from other movies and uses it to make an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie.  That’s about it.

It works if it’s entertaining, and maybe it is, but the story just plowed right ahead, giving us no reason to care about its characters but nonetheless expecting us to.  Also, Schwarzenegger’s line deliveries are always a bit off, the romance subplot is forced, and you get the idea, I wasn’t into it.

The most interesting part of this movie is that two of the actors went on to be governors.  What an absurd movie.  The more I look at posters for the movie the more I think it’s actually a hell of a lot of fun to watch the second time, preferably with someone who’s never seen it.

Up Next: The Death of Stalin (2017), Ariel (1988), Mississippi Burning (1988)

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