There was a sizable, Austrian weight-lifter turned Hollywood actor turned California governor turned actor again hole in my cinema viewing known as The Running Man (1987). I filled that hole last night. What did I think of the movie? Uh. . . .
The Running Man is a movie that is ahead of its time in concept, but dated in its approach, even for 1987. It tells the story of a former police officer named Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the dystopian future of 2017. Trust me, the irony is not lost on me. In this alternate version of three years ago, the United States government has seemingly ceded control of society over to television networks, and the most popular show is the one in the title of the movie. How does one get on this show? Well, if you are Ben it involves a great deal of bad luck. The film starts with him doing a noble thing by refusing to open fire on a food riot. His good deed, though, is punished by having to do hard labor in some kind of prison where you perform industrial work and wear collars rigged to blow up your head if you try to escape. Still, Ben and a couple of his fellow inmates manage to defeat the explosive system and get away. Ben ends up at an apartment he believes belongs to his brother, but is now occupied by a network employee named Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso). She recognizes him as the infamous Butcher of Bakersfield, the footage of his defiance having been doctored to make it look like he committed a heinous crime and splashed all over the news. Getting the picture, yet? In the midst of trying to abscond to Hawaii, as you do, Amber gives away Ben’s identity and he is sent off to be the next contestant on The Running Man. If he wins, he is told that he could get a trial by jury, and he even has a court appointed talent agent. When Amber goes to work the next day and sees the altered video of Ben’s arrest, she begins to believe that maybe he is not the monster he is made out to be. Yet she is caught trying to find the raw feed of the massacre at Bakersfield and is forced to be on the show as well. So, you might be thinking, what is the big deal about being on television? Because if you do not make it through the maze you are catapulted into without being slayed by the so-called Stalkers, then it was nice knowing you. Ben being Ben (and what I really mean by that is Ben being Arnold), he is able to fairly easily take care of the trained killers on his and Amber’s tail. The Stalkers do manage to kill Ben’s former jail mates, but not before they are able to crack the code for the video uplink that is conveniently located in middle of the murder-maze. Miraculously, too, is the location of a resistance base in one of the sectors of the twisted cityscape they must navigate, and it of course has everything they need to expose the crimes of the network. Their final act is to storm the set of the show and dispatch the host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson). So I guess that means the day is saved?
If we layer The Running Man over today’s society, you might find some disturbing parallels, although I suppose social media would stand in place of network television. If they were to remake this film, and I am somewhat surprised they have not done so, I am sure it would look a lot better too. What causes one to not take this movie seriously is that it is just. So. Cheesy. Ben’s constant flow of one-liners and catch phrases after he triumphs over one Stalker after another are enough eye-rolling material, but the set and costume designs put it over the top. I could not help but laugh uproariously at some moments, particularly when I noticed that the guards in this world wear baseball helmets with certain modifications to make them look more futuristic. You cannot hide that shape from an old little leaguer like me. Poor Jim Brown, too. It might have been around the time that filming was going on that one of my childhood heroes, Walter Payton, broke his record for most career rushing yards. He must have taken this news hard to put blond streaks in his hair and don the goofy costume the Stalker Fireball. I get what this movie was going for, but it was a circus and while watching it I hummed “Entry of the Gladiators” to myself.
So, I guess The Running Man is taking a stance against corruption? It is hard to tell because Ben is basically just trying to survive, though he does end up helping the resistance. Television is meant to entertain, and there is nothing wrong with being entertained. Even the most dedicated of religious orders take time out from their busy schedules of work and prayer to pursue some kind of amusement. We desire such things because they gladden the soul, and in such moments we can become closer to God, who truly does desire us to be happy. The problem arises when it becomes all you seek, or when it becomes an escape from dealing with real issues in society, like the fact that there is such a thing as a food riot as in the movie. There are some that would call Faith an escape too, but unlike the potential corruption of so many media outlets, Christianity involves choice and teaches people to love another rather than to cut people up with chainsaws.
I would recommend avoiding The Running Man, not necessarily because of its violence or its cheesiness. It has those things, and a little bit of bloodiness, but it is not terribly original in its plot structure. It is pretty much like any other Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, so if you have seen others you have seen this one. You could almost play this one side-by-side with Total Recall (1990) and you would have strikingly similar movies. Yes, it does point to a few problems that underpin our society to this day, and it is important to be aware of them. Instead, I would simply suggest that you do some research on your own.