We don’t really use the word ‘wacky’ anymore. Nor the word ‘zany,’ for that matter. They’re both a bit antiquated, both a bit 1980s in flavor. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that I deploy the word wacky (as well as zany) in describing The Running Man, because this Schwarzenegger vehicle is very obviously a product of that decade. It is a hot mess of generic 1980s action filmmaking: bad costuming, a story about the imminent collapse of American civilization, cringe-inducing one-liners, and a horrible synthesized Vangelis-lite score that runs under every second of film. This is a movie made in an era when big-name ‘action heroes’ were still important (and indeed still existed); this is a movie made in an era when all action films ended with a half-good new wave song about how doing whatever it is heroes do isn’t all that easy (Black Rain’s ending theme was good, and this film’s ending theme wasn’t too bad either). If you’re looking for quintessential 80s action films, starting here seems all too logical. This is the 80s at its most raw; it’s real and it’s spectacular—to steal Teri Hatcher’s phrase—and it’s also very, very bad. But I’m not so sure that matters here.
The Running Man is set in 2019, where society has collapsed, a totalitarian government rules, and much of Los Angeles is, for some unaddressed reason, in ruins. The only entertainment available to the populace is government-sponsored reality television: some exercise shows, but mostly game shows it seems, which is what “The Running Man” is: a ‘game’ show where criminals are set loose in L.A. Their task is to hide from (or otherwise dispose of) “stalkers,” superhero-type vigilantes who attempt to hunt down the criminals and violently dispose of them for the bloodthirsty viewers at home. Into this fray steps Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a heroic solider turned enemy of the state who must fight for his life in The Running Man game.
Here’s one wacky thing about The Running Man: it may as well be a video game. Indeed, Roger Ebert characterized the film as such in the first sentence of his review of the film, terming it an “arcade game.” Schwarzenegger defeats four vigilantes. All have their own unique abilities, and all are defeated one-on-one. They are, for all intents and purposes, the ‘boss’ enemies you might battle at the end of a level in a shooter or a strategy game. So there’s no real plot: it is, in essence, a hundred minute highlight reel of Schwarzenegger dispatching a motley crew of poorly dressed, poorly named, overly eccentric enemies. He does it all with a smile, and it seems he has a droll one-liner for every foot of film. Unfortunately, many of the zingers are confusing. I suppose this might be due to Schwarzenegger’s delivery of them, but it’s unclear whether we should blame him or the screenwriter. Early on in the picture, Schwarzenegger faces off against a character by the name of Sub Zero. When Zero eventually meets his demise, Schwarzenegger stares into the TV cameras and announces, “Sub Zero. . . now ‘Plain Zero’!” That left me scratching my head, but by the time I could begin to contemplate it Schwarzenegger had already snapped off two more quips and I was quickly falling behind.
It’s all in good fun, though, and it’s hard to seriously level a complaint against The Running Man on those grounds. All in all, it’s a fairly jovial movie—it’s a ‘Basic Cable Classic’ in the same vein as Con Air, Face/Off, Point Break, or Red Dawn. These are inherently ridiculous pictures that you watch at your own peril. Much of their entertainment value comes from their shoddy production. Why is Schwarzenegger adorned in a skin-tight yellow spandex body suit? “Because it’s the 80s!” comes the reply, and that is enough to suffice.
The Running Man’s real crime is that it does a disservice to its source material. The Running Man was first a novella by Stephen King (under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman) which the film is superficially similar to. King’s world is also a dystopia; King’s protagonist also participates in The Running Man game. But that’s as much as the film cribs, and King’s book is several orders of magnitude better than the adaptation. Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards is a military man and a warrior, while King’s Ben Richards is an everyman, a poor, broken worker that enters “The Running Man” for the chance to win the money to save his ailing daughter. He survives by outwitting his opponent—he blows up a YMCA building as a distraction, escaping in the aftermath; he also disguises himself as a priest and hijacks an airplane. Schwarzenegger is a hero, but King’s protagonist isn’t necessarily a hero, and he certainly doesn’t settle the game in a heroic way.
It’s not so much that the film betrays the book or otherwise sullies book’s legacy. Rather, the movie is just a missed opportunity. In ignoring most of the book, the filmmakers stripped out what made the original work so great and replaced it with something substandard. Why break something that is already ideal? King’s book, though a novella (and therefore shorter than a typical three- or four-hundred page novel), was larger in scope than the film, so some adjustments would necessarily be required, but it is not as if a more faithful adaptation would be impossible. One of the best things about the book—and this, coincidentally, may be the film’s biggest mistake—is that King isolates Richards. He is, for the most part, alone in trying to elude a seemingly insurmountable enemy. He has no resources; he has few allies. This, I imagine, would have been a much more compelling approach for the film to take. We see from the likes of First Blood and the final act of Predator that one-man chase sequences can be brilliant if executed well. Predator was, incidentally, another product of the 80s, and another Schwarzenegger-helmed film—it was, in fact, released in the same year as The Running Man, just five months before this picture. It would have been interesting to see the hero flee from state to state, from cover to cover, with the authorities nipping at his heels, him barely escaping time and time again—a sort of Catch Me If You Can-type scenario, but with much more at stake. Instead, here we have Schwarzenegger teamed with two faceless cronies and a damsel that he, shockingly, manages to court by the end of the picture.
A capable writer would be needed to plot out a one-man large-scale chase sequence, as with First Blood. It’s not just that the scenario is complex. Much would be needed in terms of character development, and just plain character depth—two things that were essentially nonexistent in the film. Writing was not a priority in The Running Man film; it didn’t need to be, because entertainment-focused action films are not where we look to for developed characters and logical narratives. But if we’re going to spend time alone with the protagonist, he can’t be paper thin like Schwarzenegger is. He must care for him, and that requires better writing and a more dedicated approach.
I hope this 1987 film is not the last we see of The Running Man. This is a fun film, and it’s a ‘great’ 80s film, but the book has so much more to offer. I can imagine a better movie; I can also imagine a twelve- or thirteen-part HBO miniseries, a Band of Brothers- or John Adams-type production that can afford to dedicate the time required to a larger adventure. Isn’t there something ironic about a dystopian reality TV show playing out on our TV screens? The opportunity is there, and the source materials are there. It would be a shame to let this book pass with a two-bit action flick as its only other adaptation. Next week: previewing the new James Bond movie Skyfall, we'll look back at the first James Bond film, Dr. No—now fifty years old, if you believe it.