The Running Man (1987)

The Running Man (1987) – A couple weeks ago, we lost actor and longtime game show host Richard Dawson. I never watched Hogan’s Heroes (on which he was a cast member) partially because it was on decades before I was born and partially because growing up I never had the cable channels that aired it in reruns. I never watched Family Feud (of which he was the longtime host) either because a lot of game shows just weren’t really my thing (except Jeopardy. Love Jeopardy). However, there was one part of my childhood that Richard Dawson will forever be remembered for and that is the 1987 sci fi action flick The Running Man. Like many youth of the 80s and 90s, I was a big fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and The Running Man was one of my favorites. Many years later I read the Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King) book it was based on. It’s very different, but a pretty gripping read. Still, The Running Man for me will always feature the bright 80s colors of the movie.

Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger who, as usual, has a very American character name to go with his thick Austrian accent) was a helicopter pilot who refused to execute unarmed rioters in Bakersfield. He was overpowered by his crew who DID execute the rioters and pinned the blame on Richards. Years later Richards and two friends (Yaphet Kotto, Marvin J. McIntyre) escape from prison and go their separate ways. Richards abducts a hostage (Maria Conchita Alonso) and tries to flee the country. It doesn’t work. He is recaptured and forced to participate in a game show sponsored by the totalitarian government: The Running Man. Convicted criminals are set loose in a sprawling arena of sorts to try to stay alive while being hunted by “stalkers” trying to kill them. The show’s vicious host/producer, Damon Killian (Dawson), wants Richards because he thinks he’ll put on one hell of a show. Richards has differing ideas about what “one hell of a show” really means.

The stalkers have nicknames like Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), Sub-Zero(Professor Toru Tanaka), Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth), Fireball (Jim Brown), and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura) and seem very much patterned after the professional wrestlers that were so popular back then (Tanaka, Van Lidth, and Ventura being actual wrestlers). Schwarzenegger, more than his physical prowess, brought a sly sense of humor to many of his action roles. That’s not to say that many of his jokes aren’t just AWFUL, but the man has a certain charisma that explain a lot of his success in movies and politics (though holy shit am I happy he’s back doing the former and done with the latter). Richard Dawson, best known as a rather beloved game show host, oozes sleaze in this role. I can’t help but feel like Dawson thought of the most unsavory people he’d ever met in the entertainment industry and channeled all of them.

It’s hard to talk about this movie and NOT mentioned the rise of reality TV that this movie presciently foretold some thirteen years before it really kicked off. It wasn’t entirely unprecedented at the time of the movie. There were certainly a LOT of game shows on television at the time and “documentary” programs like An American Family were basically what we would come to call reality TV in later years. The movie demonstrates how the producers of the show manufacture content and manipulate footage to advance their narrative, something that pretty much DEFINES “reality” TV today. There is a hint of depth to The Running Man, with its obvious references to the whole “bread and circuses” aspect of show business distracting the populace from its real problems but it’s really just set dressing. This is a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger kicking ass. Still I can’t help but wonder if the anti-authoritarian tone of this film (as well as many other sci fi action movies I saw in my youth) helped to shape my own anti-authoritarian attitude. It’s possible. Director Paul Michael Glaser (best known as Starsky from Starksy and Hutch) probably just set out to make a fun movie. That he did, my friends. That he did.

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