The Running Man (1987) – A Review

The Running Man Arnold Schwarzenegger
Richard Dawson and Arnold Schwarzenegger in
The Running Man

A futuristic game show where contestants risk their lives all for the thrill of the television audience.

Sounds kind of prophetic huh?

In 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger had established himself as the goto action hero icon of the period. The muscles, the accent, the one-liners; they all created a screen persona that drew millions of fans to watch Arnold in some of the most popular action films of the period.

The best of Arnold’s outings were the ones that were able to use his talents to match the material, the films that were more polished, they had a higher degree of quality and they eventually would become action classics (The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall…..and I think I would throw Commando on this list too).

Lesser Arnold efforts were more B-level productions that despite having Arnold really didn’t leave much of an impression and were mainly forgotten. Red Heat – Arnold as a Russian teamed with Jim Belushi. Don’t recall much more than that. Raw Deal – I don’t remember anything about that one. I think Arnold had his hair slicked back in it though.

I always felt The Running Man fell in the middle of Arnold’s heyday of action films.  Rewatching it recently it doesn’t hold up as well as I remembered. It’s a dopey flick that misses being ‘Good’ and rests in the ‘OK’ category. It has a cool premise, but just never did enough with it and resulted in a pretty cheap looking movie with a few highlights.

Based on 1982 sci-fi novel by Stephen King, The Running Man is the most popular television show in the year 2017. It’s a reality gameshow where convicted felons risk running for their freedom against deadly stalkers. Scwarzenegger is wrongly convicted and forced onto the show by the evil creator and host of the show Damian Killian played by Richard Dawson.

Buzz Saw vs Arnie

Schwarzenegger runs the gambit with his teammates trying to survive encountering a successive series of attacks by deadly adversaries with names like Buzz Saw, Dynamo, Fireball and Sub-Zero. All these guys have their own unique weapons and outfits that make the fans go crazy for!

Once the show starts the film essentially becomes a series of action scenes with these colorful stalkers trying to take out Arnie. That should be some fun, exciting stuff right? Well, not really. The action setpieces aren’t very exhilarating. They feel somewhat formulaic and don’t give off the thrills you would think they would. Arnie dispenses the bad guys, gives his one-liner and the film moves forward.

The Running Man doesn’t have the best of Arnie’s one-liners in it.

“Hey, Killian! Here’s Subzero! Now…..plain zero!”

Not really the most memorable, funny line uttered by Arnie.

In between these attacks there is a secondary plot of a resistance movement and Arnie’s companions trying to contact them to show the world the truth behind Killian and the lies he and the government are feeding the public. This whole storyline is handled in a very blasé manner and I never cared about these resistance fighters or the revolt they were planning to unleash.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Richard Dawson The Running Man 1987

So the action is ho-hum, the story is boring, but there is one thing that I do enjoy about The Running Man and that’s Richard Dawson.

Dawson is very funny in a spoofing performance of a television host who will literally do anything for ratings and doesn’t feel an once of guilt about it. He has some great lines – better than any of Arnold’s – and whenever he’s onscreen he’s more exciting to watch than any of the patched together action scenes.

Plus, all the overly-ridiculous jokes aimed at television are pretty funny. They don’t linger on them very long and they’re mainly kept running in a background nature in the film.

Satirizing television violence is nothing new, but at the time of its release it was still somewhat fresh and having the most beloved game show host of all time doing it added an extra bite. Now seeing where television has gone many of the jokes can feel outdated and silly, but they’re still played out in clever ways. As stupid as it is, I still find myself chuckling as Dawson hands out The Running Man home game to lucky audience members.

Maria Conchita Alonso The Running Man
Maria Conchita Alonso

I wish the rest of the film was as much fun and smart as that angle. The action scenes are not choreographed or edited very well. Many of the various colored lighting effects to distinguish each stalker attack makes them look murky. The dismal futuristic society presented here is one we’ve seen countless times before. All the characters are pretty flat. Maria Conchita Alonso looks attractive, but doesn’t have much to do other than that.

Rewatching it I was surprised at how cheap the film looks today. I know it didn’t cost a ton of money, but it never gets creative enough to stretch its budget to make a visually stimulating sci-fi film. Or an intellectually one either.

It’s kind of funny when I think my favorite thing about an Arnold Schwarzenegger 80’s action film was the casting of the host of Family Feud as the bad guy. I would never have guessed.

I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t tapped this yet for a big-budget remake. Maybe they just haven’t gotten around to it yet.


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2 Responses

  1. Adam Ruiz says:

    I disagree, I think this is a very fun movie and while not on the level of Total Recall or T2, I still think this is one of Arnie's best. The action I thought was well done and enjoyable but what really makes the film for me is the satire on television. Overall a very fun experience!

    • I do enjoy the satire of all the amped up violence in television the film does. Climbing For Dollars, with contestants simply climbing up a rope, grabbing cash with mad dogs biting at their feet always stood out to me as pretty funny.
      Other than that the rest of the film felt very sluggish. The resistance movement bored me. And rewatching it I was surprised how the stalker attacks weren't as thrilling as I remembered. But Richard Dawson is still great fun to watch, he's the one thing that really distinguishes this Arnie entry for me.

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