The Running Man (1987)

Paul Michael Glaser directs Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso and Yaphet Kotto in this sci-fi actioner where a wrongly convicted man has to fight for his life on a gaudy gladiator hit TV show.

A fair few years back I was in a car share with some comedians and one of them said something strange. This wasn’t unusual. These car rides could often be 8 hour round trips, frequently with a mix of people you barely knew. You grasped for small talk or big talk or anything that would keep the driver awake or your mind off of whatever impending shithole gig you were headed to. Most comedians are witty and intelligent people to have a chat with – movies, bands, war stories, other comedians are the main topics to debate around. Others will say ludicrous things you are stuck trying not to think too hard about the for whole evening as you are relying on them driving you somewhere you’ll get paid and then back to (hopefully within walking distance of) your home after midnight. I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone of saying a ludicrous statement while grasping for words to fill the silence. But none as bad as the one journey that started with an act using the “N” word in a derogatory way before we had even left London. Another moaned for over a hundred miles that charity shops charged too much for the items he liked to resell on EBay for a profit. A now very famous act got into the backseat and told the driver immediately to turn the inoffensive music we were listening to off. As they “did not like music at all”. Blanket statement. That was a long car journey.

The reason for this prelude was once we were driving to Norfolk with the brilliant John Gordillo and a newer act. We were talking about favourite movies. John rhapsodised about Vertigo. I probably pumped for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The new guy, matter of factly, just said his favourite film was The Running Man. Of all of cinema. Like a 120 years of films. It probably wouldn’t even make most people’s Top 10 Arnie movies! Or Stephen King adaptations! And with no further justification. “I just like it.” It was such an unusual, left of field choice it stuck with me. I couldn’t hand on my heart tell you what my best friend’s or my Dad’s all time favourite is but this guy whose name I can’t even remember will forever be associated in my head with Arnold in lycra killing elaborately costumed henchmen.

I watched it quite a bit as a kid. And even had the Amstrad game. I probably stopped choosing it on a regular basis when I realised I could rent anything at the videoshop or tape a whole world of Moviedrome movies off TV. I probably haven’t watched The Running Man in its entirety since I was 13.

It is a perfect pre-teen hyper violent illicit actioner. Our innocent but deadly “Butcher of Bakersfield” faces off against a series of flamboyant action figures. One is a Japanese hockey player with exploding pucks and a razorsharp stick. An overweight opera singer who shoots lasers from a suit made of fairy lights. A hillbilly biker with a chainsaw the length of a pool table. Jim Brown with a jet pack, flamethrower and Mister Fantastic’s hair Afro-style. And Jesse Ventura. An 18 certificate movie seemingly targeted at people who can’t even shave yet. The kills are silly. Every moment of violence a set-up for Arnold to deliver a pithy punchline. “Hey! Lighthead! Hey Christmas Tree!!” “Here’s your Subzero, now plain zero.” “Well, I haven’t been in show business as long as you have, Killian. But I’m a quick learner. So, I’m going to give the audience what I think they want.” He fucking does as well.

The gameshow itself has the vibes and production values of a big Saturday night special. Fallacious host. Sparkling dance numbers. Prizes for the audience. Yuppies watch it at cocktail and coke parties. The poor huddle around mega screens in their slums making bets with bookies who surround the display. The Running Man is often criticised for Glaser’s flat TV movie direction. But these glimpses of the near-future world have a real pumping, convincing energy to them. The Fugitive and Under Siege’s Andrew Davis was kicked off production after two week of filming. Are these B-Unit moments his? Or does Glaser’s direction deserve a bit of reappraisal?

The dystopian fascist vision of the future is no great shakes if you’ve read 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. But is surprising how much has been adopted by either reality and other films. Prisons where the convicts have explosives attached intimately to them rather than bars or guards to restrict them. TV shows were normal people are on the run or forced into acts they wouldn’t perform away from cameras. Mainstream light entertainment hosts with more power and control than is healthy for society. Deep fakes. The only thing it really gets wrong is we don’t watch TV programming en masse anymore.

I really enjoyed returning to The Running Man three decades late. It is a blunt, pleasing, gory spectacle. Harold Faltermeyer’s synth score is doom laden yet energetic. It has been running through my head for days now. It moves with purpose. The satire is surprisingly effective. Arnie not just holds the screen with his physique but he has mastered acting, humour and American pronunciation by this point. Whose to judge what anyone’s favourite film is? There’s probably an adult out there whose favourite movie is Avengers: Endgame. And no one gets chainsawed in half from balls to buzz cut and then given the epitaph; “He had to split!” in that very average release.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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