The Running Man

This contribution is for my movie buff friend, Rob, who is hosting the MOVIE ROB’S OCTOBER STEPHEN KING BLOGATHON. I selected not a horror film but a 1982 science fiction novel penned by Richard Bachman, the alias of King. According to Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, it took him a week to write The Running Man. Like several of his film adaptations, the transfer from book to film is difficult. You really need a magical director to pull off the magic of King’s words. Is The Running Man as good as The Shining, Misery, or Carrie? No, not even close. Should you watch The Running Man (1987)? 

A good dystopian story contains satire, and The Running Man film reeks of it, and that’s the challenge with appreciating it. The story-line has a superior message which the inner intellectual embraces, while the film surrounds the viewer with all the crass elements about the 1980s I’d just assume forget. The film could have been a Blade Runner or a Mad Max with its themes developed, but as The Running Man tries to illustrate the ludicrousness of society, that is, a populace addicted to reality television and individual freedoms stolen by a corrupt government, the emphasis of the film shifts away from the warning and stresses the absurdity of the stalkers and the deliverance of those silly one-liners we all associate with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Plus, it lacks the clever special effects admired in Total Recall (1990). 

Richard Dawson as Damon Killian
Richard Dawson as Damon Killian

Does it sound like I disliked the film? No, it is fun if you don’t take it too seriously. After all, you have to admire the cast for they are living examples of the parody and know it. Richard Dawson as the superficial television game host (remember Family Feud?) gives the mob what they want–violence and death in a gladiator-style television show with all the noise and lights and Jane Fonda leotards on dancers who came straight from the MTV set of a Paula Abdul video. How about Jim Brown, the football fullback worshiped for his prowess as a stadium athlete, or Captain Freedom played by Jesse Ventura, the quintessential wrestler famous for his staging in the ring? Or Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac, a performer from another circus ring, the rock star? All this parodying of the entertainer and their fickle fans, grandmothers, and average Joes who are duped by the media makes me cringe especially since the story is set in the future of 2017.

I like watching old science fiction just to see if their predictions came true. Have we devolved? I think humans have always loved the diversion of entertainment. One can easily see the parallels from 1987 to today; we do live in a dystopian of sorts where violence and technology reign supreme. Where that thin line between appearance and reality is distorted for ratings and sales and the wow-factor. The fizz of the entertainment industry. The assault on the senses. A police-state merging with the entertainment industry to brainwash its society. Taken in this vein, the film from the past contains varying shades of our today. When I first watched it thirty years ago, it did feel like science fiction. Who better illustrates this past-present correlation than Arnold Schwarzenegger who has spent a lifetime in front of a camera as body-builder, actor, politician, and returning today as an actor, a nebulous icon of our world?

If you like good old-fashioned kick-ass films with sarcastic tough-guys bludgeoning their way from point A to B, you’d like this one a lot.  I did love the pod-slalom scenes when runners are transported from the studio set to the outside arena. 3.5 out of 5. 

37 thoughts on “The Running Man

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  1. I still watch Arnold as a funny actor with action. I feel how he delivers his lines is “stellar,” but corny. Cindy, my favorite recent film, “The Last Stand,” utilized the best aspects of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I wish the director in the film, “The Running Man” had utilized the talent in his diverse cast who could have done better with better direction. Glad you mentioned Jane Fonda and Fleetwood Mac member. May just be amusing to spot the cast! 🙂 Stephen King is even better in more subtle films using his short stories like, “The Green Mile” and “Shawshank Redemption.”

    1. Hi Robin. I haven’t seen ‘The Last Stand’. Paul Michael-Glazer who directed the film, remember Starsky and Hutch? Ugh. I agree, in experienced hands, the film might have fulfilled its potential. It’s easy to poke fun at an icon. He is the ultimate actor who has a teflon coating able to have all kinds of crap fall off him. Sounds like another 80s icon….
      Anyway, Stephen King is a great writer but his films adaptations are hit and miss. Your examples are excellent, certainly popular choices.

  2. Cindy, I saw this when it was released and it made no impression on me at all. Can’t remember a thing about it. I liked Arnold in Pumping Iron, the Terminator, and Total Recall. Other than those, his movies are a blur. Your review,however, makes me want to see this one again, if only to see Mick Fleetwood. His acting cant be any worse than Arnold’s. I’ve only read a dozen or so King novels, and he is a skilled storyteller. The Dead Zone was my favorite of his books. Carrie, The Shining, Misery, and Stand by Me were all superior movies, but I lost all interest in King and his adaptations when we were flooded with television mini-series’ stamped with his name.

  3. Funny story about this movie. My mom let us watch several of Arnold’s films. She had a specific negative reaction to this one. She was repulsed by the idea of people cheering for other people to kill each other. It was such a random reaction that completely missed the point. But it was a strong reaction and she would never let us watch it in the house again. We look back on it now and laugh but at the time she was dead serious. 🙂

    1. Hi, Keith, thanks for sharing that! It is offensive on a literal level and I can understand her reaction. The film today doesn’t seem so strange, but back then, before reality television, it did seem horrifying to think we, as a society, would take our competitive escapism to that extreme.

  4. Great post Cindy! It’s been sooo long since I’ve seen Running Man, I usually find it interesting (and sometimes funny) to see how movies depict the future. I like that piece of trivia you mentioned that it only took Stephen King a week to write the novel, he has so many ideas and so prolific. 😀

    1. I guess he usually takes 3 months to write a rough draft based upon his formula of writing 2,000 words or 10 pages a day. I only wish that was all I had to do is wake up and write. I’m glad for him. He’s been quite the icon himself these past forty years.

  5. I just watched The Dead Zone again this week, on TV. ‘The Running Man’ is one of my least favourite Arnie films, as it feels so set-bound. However, King’s idea was sound, and I feel sure that a ‘real-life’ adaptation of the show would be a surefire success!
    Best wishes, Pete.

  6. i just watched it and agree with all your assessments, Cindy. And the best thing was indeed the pod-slalom route. i also got a kick out of that terrible imitation of Blade Runner LA that was used at least half a dozen times. Mostly the picture was boring cartoon violence with no genuine development of the satirical theme.

  7. I’ve had The Running Man sitting around for a few years now, although I did watch it once when my family first got a VHS player, so probably within a year or so of it first coming out. I remember the teenage me enjoying it, but sounds like it has dated quite badly in a way the other films you mention haven’t. And I’d completely forgotten that Mick Fleetwood is in it!
    I’ve also read the Bachman Books. I remember enjoying The Long Walk the most…surely that’s ripe for turning into a young adult dystopian thriller!

  8. Fine review, Cindy. While I probably enjoyed the novel more, SK’s “Richard Bachman” persona on the page has its moments, this being one of the better ones, the ’87 film adaptation is an interesting one. As a predictor for future events, as you’ve deftly identified, have remarkably come about for the most part. We seem more corporate-controlled, though. but the loss of privacy, care of the Government’s Patriot Act, is still chilling. Still, the film was a prime example for the ’80s, too. Arnold cresting in popularity and using one-liners to great, if just empty calorie, effect, during that big-hair, leg-warmers, and padded shoulders era. I agree that ‘Total Recall’ is the better film, too.

    1. Hi Michael, thank you for the comments. Arg! Those shoulder pads. Good grief. After watching this one, I am curious enough for a revisit of Total Recall. I haven’t seen it for at least fifteen years. I wonder how it holds up? And, I didn’t like the remake a few years ago. Anyway, I know what a SK fan you are, so thanks for stopping to comment. 🙂

  9. Oh I actually have The Running Man’s dvd from Ted I still need to see. I’ll let you know how I like that one.

    P.S. Hope you stop by my latest review of Bridge of Spies, I reckon you’d like that film.

  10. This is a decent action-satire flick, if utterly forgettable; I saw this sometime last year and barely remember the details (King’s/Bachman’s novel has stuck with me, though). Love your reflections on looking at sci-fi of generations past as a barometer for today, especially in light of all the thousands of words spent on Back to the Future.

  11. Insightful review Cindy. I totally agree that The Running Man has some fascinating ideas but that the sum of all the parts isn’t quite as fulfilling as it could have been. I think the excesses of entertainment have been exampled in film in more interesting ways (Series 7, The Truman Show, EdTv) but I’m not sure they are any more fun.

    1. Hi Dan! So glad you stopped by to comment. I appreciate it. As for me, I find I have to be very picky about what I spend my time watching. I used to watch a lot of television, but found I was bored and I hate commercials. I love films, but I don’t have time to see a lot, so I’m selective about what I rent to go see. I think reality television is the lowest form of entertainment, so The Running Man resonated with me.

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