Revisiting “The Running Man”

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I’ve seen The Running Man (not to be confused with Marathon Man, which itself is not to be confused with The Marrying Man) several times over last couple decades, almost invariably on some basic TV station, edited for noontime viewing; always in scattered, unorganized chunks. And I’ve never not liked it; if someone asked for an opinion on it, I’d probably say, “Oh yeah, that’s a cool movie”, without giving it much thought. Not much thought, that is, until I watched it again today. If someone were to ask me what I thought of that movie now, I’d say, “Oh shit. Have you seen it?? You totally gotta see it!” And thankfully you can – it’s currently streaming on Netflix.

Like any masterpiece, it not only stands the test of time, but actually gets better with age, and offers new little, trivial tidbits to appreciate with each subsequent viewing. I promise I’m not saying any of this to be ironic or hip; I say these things with an earnest regard. The movie apparently received a lukewarm reception upon its initial release, but I’m here to say: I think this movie is totally solid, enjoyable, and possibly one of Schwarzenegger’s best. Not to mention this movie was the direct inspiration behind the show American Gladiators – and if that’s not reason enough to get you to watch it, well then, we’re done here.

Written by Steven E. de Souza (48 Hrs., Commando, Die Hard) and loosely based on a story by Stephen King, the movie is set in the distant future (I say ‘distant’ because at the time it was filmed [1987] the year 2017 was quite a long time away), and it follows a police officer (Schwarzenegger) who is framed for murder and is forced to participate in a new reality game show that’s apparently one of the most popular forms of entertainment. On this gameshow, convicts are offered a chance at freedom if they can make it through a successive series of heavily armed baddies known as “stalkers”. If the cons survive all the stalkers and get to the end, they can go free.

I’m not sure if it’s just a weird coincidence, but the film shares several tiny parallels with Schwarz’s other films — and not in the broad ‘strong guy fighting bad guys’ general way, but in more specific ways: he wrestles with a woman while she watches an exercise program on TV (Total Recall); he’s implanted with a tracking device while trying to break free from the gurney he’s strapped down to (Total Recall); he tries to escape capture by running down a tarmac (Commando). They are little things, but seeing them evokes flashes of his other movies. I’m sure I could spot more if I watch it again.

So that’s the basic gist of the film, but I wanna point out three things that I think make the movie so enjoyable.

THE CAST

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Yaphet Kotto, Richard Dawson, Kurt Fuller, and Jesse Ventura in a Conan O’Brien-style wig! Not to mention María Conchita Alonso, Mick Fleetwood (!), Dweezil Zappa (!!), and Sven Thorsen. Plus Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne) and Lin Shaye! Familiar faces abound, and are all wonderfully cast – from Dawson as the smug and charming TV show host (real stretch), down to the Ventura as the conflicted, glory-day embracing macho man. And speaking of cast, let’s look at the baddies the runners have to face:

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Professor Subzero, Buzzsaw, Dynamo, and Fireball. Does it get any cooler? Buzzsaw rides around on a motocycle while swinging various chainsaws around! And look how mysterious and badass Fireball looks. Plus, if you didn’t notice, Professor Subzero is played by ex-wrestler Professor Tanaka who played the butler in another great Schwarz flick, Last Action Hero. Dynamo is a bit of an oddball — played by real life opera singer Erland Van Lidth de Jeude (probably most well known for his scene as soft-spoken skinhead Grossberger in Stir Crazy), Dynamo isalso an operatic killer who uses electricity to off the runners. And Fireball! Played by the ultimate bad motherfucker, ex-footballer and blaxploitation mainstay, Jim Brown! A mustache-less Jim Brown, at that.

SET DESIGN

Look at any movie from the 70s or 80s that is supposed to be set in the future, and you get either one of two looks: a post-apocalyptic desert-like landscape where people wear bones as a fashion statement, or a vast cityscape full of big angular buildings that are shrouded in smog and neon. I love both of these approaches, but they always seem to be mutually exclusive. However, The Running Man combines the two with great effect! The stalkers, while still being futuristic in their design, are still just rough around the edges enough to evoke thoughts of Mad Max. And the layout of the killing floor is at times both metallic and galactic, but also somehow sparse and dusty. Additionally, the music was provided by Harold Faltermeyer, famous for his bouncing synth scores in movies like Beverly Hills Cop, Fletch, Top Gun, and Tango & Cash – and it compliments the visuals perfectly.

THE ONE-LINERS

Arnold Schwarzenegger is no stranger to delivering a face-slapping punny one-liner just seconds prior to snuffing a bad guy. But this movie is full of ‘em. He even lets the ladies have a little taste:

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At one point, he even delivers two puns after killing Fireball, as if one just wasn’t enough.

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Hell, he even says shit that doesn’t make sense but still feels as if he’s trying to be punny:

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And it wouldn’t feel complete without the inclusion of this bad boy:

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Pure Schwarzenegger.

Well there you have it, friends. If you like films like Logan’s Run, Mad Max, Death Race 2000, hell even The Hunger Games, you’ll probably dig this flick. I highly encourage you to check out The Running Man if you haven’t yet – and I also suggest giving it another look if it’s a been awhile since you last watched it!

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