Screening Log #2: The Running Man (1987)

Paul Michael Glaser’s 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man is a strangely prophetic animal of a film. The Sci-Fi premise is half The Most Dangerous Game and half reality show: in a dystopian – and far less distant 2017 – the world has collapsed due to shortages of food and oil and is run by a militant organization. The most popular television show in this society is a show called The Running Man wherein government-provided convict contestants face off against “stalkers” who hunt these contestants through 400 blocks of destitute city streets. The stalkers pursue and then kill contestants.

Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a former military officer who was framed for killing innocent protesters after he refused to shoot the unarmed civilians. Richards escapes the prison before being recaptured and put on The Running Man by Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) who sees him as the perfect contestant to draw larger ratings than ever before. The rabid fans of the show vote which of the stalkers take after Richards and his cohorts through the maze and Richards must then systematically dispatch of the killers. The plot moves in a fairly straightforward manner from here on out; Richards trades kills with the stalkers until everyone is dead and Richards and Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) are left to expose the lies propagated by the network about the deeds of Richards and other government activities. Of course they succeed, sending Killian hurtling through his tubes and through his own image on a billboard which, sort of inexplicably, explodes.

Running Man PosterThe film and it’s focus on the quest for ratings and sensationalism in media taking up a strand of commentary from Network and predicts the reality TV phenomenon of the early 21st century with reality shows becoming wildly popular and upping the ante weekly to gain and retain viewership. The commentary is straightforward and simple and comes cocooned in its own web of sensational and strange violence. The bloodthirsty attitude of the audience, and their disregard for human life, is at once amusing and sort of striking, drawing the crowd into relation with the murderers whose executions they cheer. The constant barrage of product placement also elucidates the inextricable tie between the media and marketing; the film even has the suits of the contestants on the show made by Adidas, the oil provided by Valvoline.

The casting of the film in-itself is rather prescient, with Dawson playing Killian – who was himself the long-running host of Family Feud on television – football star Jim Brown playing the stalker named Fireball and pro wrestler, and later Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura playing the greatest stalker of all time, Captain Freedom. Smaller roles are also filled by Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac and Dweezil Zappa, son of musician Frank Zappa. The film assembles a cast who have already been made famous by the media in various other arenas and adds them into the spectacle of this film, implicitly strengthening its own satirical commentary on the nature of TV and the growing fascination with celebrity.

Schwarzenegger gets an ample helping of cheeky one-liners in this film, even uttering his trade-mark “I’ll be back” to Killian as he’s sent into the zone of the game for the first time. That his character wades through violence to ultimately triumph and have hordes of people – in LA no less – chanting his name now seems sort of eerie. The film retrospectively takes on the strangely perfect quality of predicting Arnold’s own rise to political power; Schwarzenegger gained fame and popular favour through his often violent and misogynistic activities as an entertainer, which he then parlayed into the seat of Governor of California. Paired with the political success of Jesse Ventura – though significantly less durable than Schwarzenegger’s – the film can be seen not just as a criticism of media and television culture, but also as a kind of mad and savage Tiresias, auguring the pattern of future politics in the entrails of a psychopathic hockey player and a homicidal Wagnerian human Lite Brite.

One Response to “Screening Log #2: The Running Man (1987)”
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  1. […] Admission: Predator is among my favourite films; is it the “best” film I have ever seen? No. But it is an incredibly entertaining action/horror film that moved me to put a blanket over my window for a week after first seeing it when I was younger. To my mind it holds up very well past its 80′s pedigree. The film has an impressively screen-chewing cast, a truly iconic antagonist and is viscerally shot and paced by John McTeirnan; it also has both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, who appeared together to positive effect in The Running Man. […]

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