The Running Man

(USA - 1987)

by Dan McGowan & Mike Lorefice

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson, Jessie "The Body" Ventura, Yaphet Kotto, Jim Brown, Professor Toru Tanaka, Mick Fleetwood
Genre: Action/Satire
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Screenplay: Steven E. de Souza based on the novel by Steven King
Cinematography: Thomas Del Ruth
Composer: Harold Faltermeyer
Runtime: 101 minutes

"I've seen the future, baby, and it's murder." - Leonard Cohen

Dan: Paul Michael Glaser's The Running Man (1987) is not only an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, but is also a satiric look into the sports world's obsession with excess and imagery in the television age. Many reviewers missed out on the riches it exhibited when it was released. In many ways it can be said to be before its time, as it seemed to nail down and criticize the postmodern excess of contemporary phenomena, such as the recent success of the WWF and reality game shows like Survivor. Attacks on this phenomenon outside the traditional sports world have been numerous as many sports columnists take dead aim on the WWF while ignoring the same qualities currently embedded in traditional sports as the power of the image has transformed them forever. The Running Man shows us how these images are cultivated and also takes a hard look at the power of visual media in shaping heroes and villains in the world of sports and ultimately life.

The Running Man uses many of the same conventions that other 'future sport' movies use. The opening of the movie establishes the totalitarian regime that enables such violence to exist. Schwarzenegger, a helicopter gunship pilot, is asked to fire on civilians who are protesting, but he refuses. After a brief melee, Arnold is subdued and the attack on civilians commences. For this transgression, he is labeled "The Butcher of Bakersfield" (more on this later).

The top rated show on television is a game show/sports hybrid called "The Running Man." Violence (moreso the packaging of) is, of course, what attracts the many television viewers to this show. The scenes with the amassed underclass watching giant television screens and gambling away what little they have left are key to the film's main points. The spectacle of the show is used much like Roman emperors used the spectacle of gladiator combat to appease the masses in the Coliseum. The mise'-en-scene of these scenes is important to note: massive 'jumbotron' screens hover above the crowd like a huge god or temple where they can worship. The environment around them is straight out of urban decay 101. The darkness and shabby surroundings only reinforces the idea that the glowing giant screen that feeds the people these images is the center of their universe.

The power of the image also has an effect on the people behind the show. Richard Dawson plays the producer and host of "The Running Man." A key scene gives us insight into the subtle criticism that the film hides beneath its 'action flick' surface. Dawson is shown in the studio after an episode talking about the show when something on the many monitors across the room catches his eye. His eyes fixate on the one monitor and he totally ignores the people around him commenting on irrelevant things as he walks toward the screen. The footage is of Arnold sprinting at full stretch outdistancing both vehicle and man who are his pursuers, and is as captivating to the jaded Dawson as it was to us when we had seen it as it happened earlier in the film. Dawson, impressed by the physicality of the image of Arnold, asks who the man is and simply declares that they must have him on their show. While Dawson is more cynical than the average viewer is, his reaction to the image was similar to our own when we saw it earlier. The film is saying much about us as viewers and consumers as evidenced by this scene.

Another aspect that hits close to home is the building of archetypes through design. As mentioned earlier, Arnold is given the label of "The Butcher of Bakersfield" because of his supposed deeds. His real name is unimportant to the masses that watch the show. The other combatants are also given similar names; Jim Brown is "Fireball", Jesse Ventura is "Captain Freedom", and there are others like "Buzzsaw", "Dynamo", and "Subzero." Sports want things simplified like this. This is why you see so many nicknames and personas in the sports world. While Jesse may have carried "The Body" tag around in his professional career, it is by no means limited to wrestling. Iconic names and images are essential to popularity in today's image driven climate. In today's postmodern world, however, heroes and villains are not as easily determined by their persona. Good guys and bad guys are often indistinguishable. The film seems to be commenting on this as the climactic battle takes place between "Captain Freedom" (bad guy Jesse) and "The Butcher of Bakersfield" (good guy Arnold). But it even goes a step further in its irony…the battle is actually a complete fiction. The images presented to the viewers of the show were digitally concocted. The film is saying that the personas, archetypes, and iconography that we associate with individuals and teams are manipulated and far removed from 'reality.' In sports, we often feel like we 'know' the people who grace our living rooms with their presence. We make judgements about them as human beings based on the series of images that appear for a few hours every Sunday or Saturday. We also forget to realize that we are being fed a product. The Running Man is a timely piece of criticism and satire in this age of image worship and shows us the seamier side of sports. To think, like many critics did when it came out, that because it takes place in the future that it isn't a reflection of today is a mistake.

Mike: I couldn't agree more that The Running Man was ahead of its time. It seemed to be a launching pad for American Gladiators (1989-97) and that brand of semi-sport, but it goes a whole lot farther than that. It taps into the whole pop culture and media circus that allows products and brands to make more and more money at the same time they get worse and worse because people are led to believe they are somehow essential to being hip, cool, and desirable human beings.

A valid criticism of Glaser's ill-fated previous work Band of the Hand was that he couldn't be bothered with characterization, instead relying on our identification with their blatant representations. Simply applying a reformation twist to try to justify going through all the rites of passage again, his film was shallow and derivative. With a satire though, the familiar characters are much of what makes things both funny and scary.

Early on Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) says, "I worry about the kids. The network shut down the schools. The kids are either hiding or getting basic training, brainwashed by TV." There aren't really any kids in this film, but all you have to do is take a walk outside to see all the ways they've been molded by TV.

When this film came out there were still a lot of true professionals in sports. There was certainly trash talking (and by white heroes like Larry Bird too), taunting (and by white heroes like Mark Gastineau too), end zone dancing, home run trotting and the like, but for the most part you still felt like the players goal was to win rather than to stand out from the crowd. You didn't have guys changing their hairdo 10 times a season, adding a new piece of jewelry or getting a new tattoo every couple of months. You could name the guys that were about this, rather than the ones that weren't. And for a lot of them, "The Mad Hungarian" Al Hrabosky for instance, it was about intimidation rather than endorsements and commercials. You wouldn't see a wide receiver dancing and making a first down motion when his team was down by 4 TDs in the 4th quarter.

Certainly the change in sports styles was most obvious for me when the young punks would constantly be chuckling "behind my back" for playing basketball in gym shorts. This was circa '93 when the "Fab Five Freshman" of Michigan (we've recently found out what kind of heroes they were) were at their height. I was brought in an era where playing sports was about playing sports, not making some kind of fashion statement. I was taught that it was logical not to wear good clothes when you were immediately going to get them scroungey. Even if I were to become temporarily insane and purchase those stupid shorts that you tripped over because the crotch was at your knees, I wouldn't be out there playing 2 hours of full court in them the next day. So everyday I'd be over there dominating in my gym shorts and they'd be out there sporting the style of the month and giggling because I must be some kind of fag to be out there showing part of my thighs.

The film is filled with mindless adults instead. The game show aspect is really hilarious because instead of all those questions you can guess (as intelligence is looked down upon in American culture and since the quiz show scandals we worship getting rich through luck rather knowledge), its "questions" are actually just selections. One of the key scenes has a senior citizen age woman choose which of the two remaining stalkers will get the next kill. This is a great scene because her brain has decayed so much, and not from age, that you wonder if she'll even be able to handle such a difficult task. However, she hearkens back to her youth when there was some semblance of free will and thinking and sets a precedent selecting Ben Richards rather than a stalker. And it's funny because she throws in, "That boy's one mean mother fucker!"

The film is also funny in how it attacks the cookie cutter news reporting. Take the selection process for The Running Man show. A school teacher that killed his wife and mother-in-law at a faculty dinner party is suggested and Killian says he likes that quality. "He's the sort that the neighbors say such a quiet man, but never too busy to say hello." Killian was apparently a disciple of Vince McMahon, immediately knowing Arnold is his man because "They want ratings, I can get 10 points for his biceps alone."

A key to the film is that it's not the people's choice, but what they are told to like. Nothing drives this home more than the fact that Killian decides he should turn Richards into a stalker halfway through the game. Just like pro wrestling, the people hate Richards because of the propaganda and what he's done to their heroes. What he doesn't do to their hero is the biggest reason though; their true colors are shown when they boo and hiss like crazy because Richards refuses to kill a helpless stalker. Still, Killian understands that Richards has the skill to be a hero, and it's not even a consideration whether the fans will accept him in that role. What they want is determined by who is in power, and that person is him. They will buy the package because it is what he's featuring.

Other programs are being featured on "The Network" as well, but aside from combining "sports" with "game shows", what makes this stand above the rest is the gambling. It's certainly no coincidence that the most popular team sport in America, football, is also by far the best and most popular to bet on. I'm sure that most fans of The Running Man have their favorite gimmick. I know Dan & I agree that Subzero is the coolest. How can you top a hockey goalie with a legitimate blade for a stick that shoots contestants into a trap goal or exploding pucks at them? While I don't consider fantasy sports to be gambling by any means, I have to say that it's changed the way that I watch the games. In the old days (granted this was before half the rosters changed each year) I'd just root for my teams, but now I want my players on the other team to succeed in the loss. When you invest money in something, even if it's not going to break you one way or another, it's hard for your first loyalty not to be to it, especially when your personal performance is directly linked to it. For the most part, the people here could care less who gets the win as long as it's the one they bet on.

Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog received heavy praise for the way it illustrated that we are at the mercy of the creators because so called documentary footage can be seamlessly manipulated. The film was worthy of praise, but this film did it with no less skill a decade earlier. Points shouldn't be less valid because they are made within genre films, but the hype and hyperbole surrounding all the current Hollywood releases does just that. Whether the film says anything new or valid is barely even considered; it's all about whether the film has a big budget and is being marketed into the "prestige" category.

The scene where Captain Freedom (Jesse "The Body" Ventura) comes out of retirement is terrifying in it's own way. Richards & Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) have finally found the underground freedom fighters, and while they are giving them a key uplink code to break into The Network's signal, they watch themselves lose a tough battle to the death. What's so scary is how quickly The Network was able to create and broadcast this thing; it probably took no longer than it would to get a key update into the news.

Speaking of news, one of my favorite scenes is when Richards meets Amber. Amber is doing sit-ups to Captain Freedom's workout show when an emergency bulletin warns that "The Butcher of Bakersfield" is on the loose. Suddenly, as she's about to come back up, that same face is leaning right over her. She runs around like a chicken with its head cut off screaming, "Help! El Butcher of Bakersfield is in my bathroom!" Richards, who came there expecting it to still be his brother's apartment, does everything he can to explain to Amber that what she was is totally false and he's completely innocent. Alonso, a talented actress who aside from Caught has been perpetually wasted since 1988's Colors, is really good in this film. She's energetic and spirited with a good sense of timing. I just love her response here. All she says is, "Yeah, sure" but she's got this sarcastic tone and grin like you must think I'm the dumbest person in town.

The film is certainly funny - you have to laugh at things like there being an entertainment division of the Justice Department - but a lot of the comedy is better on paper than in actuality. Arnold became more than a serviceable comedian, and not much after this as his two best comedies Twins and Kindergarten Cop came out one and three years later. Here he's still quite stiff though. His one-liners are okay, but his interplay, especially with Richard Dawson, is pretty weak and just lacking when it comes to timing.

Mr. Family Feud Dawson is excellent on his own. He's such a great talker - Dan says Ric Flair level - instilling such a confidence in Killian that the character isn't annoying despite his arrogance. He's so savvy that you feel like he's earned the right to win all the time. You have to be good to believably put over a line like, "He risked everything for the chance to win our fabulous prizes like trial by jury, suspended sentence, maybe even a full pardon." I was rolling my eyes when Arnold vowed "I'll be back," but Killian's comeback, "Only in the reruns" redeemed it.


Credibility is lost toward the end. Amber providing the real footage that proves Richards isn't a butcher would have been satisfactory, but before that they have images of last year's three winners showing they are dead rather than having fun in the sun. This adds credence to the theory that The Network is bent. However, it's implausible because their carcasses were probably more than 20 minutes away even if they could send someone to find them and had all the means to produce a brief segment featuring them.

The sequences where the contestants are launched at high speed from the studio into the wasteland where the game is played are excellent for the simple reason that the light is intermittent. The problem is after we've seen four launchings that were safe enough, Killian is killed from one. Now, it's hardly smooth sailing and at that speed there's always the possibility for error, but they weren't the top rated show by chance; Killian was so on top of everything. I can't believe a show run by him could have such a dangerous launch because that kind of mistake would destroy an entire show. I realize the film had a theme of everyone getting destroyed by their own device, but sometimes one has to step back and realize there comes when you must stray from the formula.

Mike Lorefice
Dan McGowan

Gift Set DVD



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