Bad Ass Retro Review: ‘The Running Man’ (1987)

When I was a kid, just like every other kid growing up in the 80s, I was obsessed with bad ass shit. Bad ass cars. Bad ass jets. Bad ass helicopters. Bad ass motorcycles. Bad ass spaceships. Bad ass heroes.

You get the idea.

Lucky for me, the movie and TV industry were only too happy to provide plenty of movies and shows to sate my need for said bad ass shit.

Science fiction is usually thought of as predictive, but very few science fiction writers concern themselves as much with attempting to predict the future as they do trying to simply tell good stories. Most science fiction is really about the present rather than the future. George Orwell’s 1984 is often credited with describing a potential future Orwell himself wouldn’t live to see, but the novel was really commenting on (and criticizing) the totalitarian governments that already existed in its time. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner played on social anxieties that had built up around the environment and the role of technology in society and it posed a set of existential questions that had become more immediate in an era of instant gratification and rampant materialism. It wasn’t predicting a world with acid rain and extinctions of whole species and a culture dominated by oppressive and ubiquitous exhortations to consume. It was pointing out and condemning the one that existed at that time.

Though 1984 and Blade Runner weren’t necessarily trying to predict literal grim futures, they got some things right along the way. The 1987 Schwarzenegger action vehicle The Running Man (adapted from the 1982 book of the same name by Richard Bachman – Stephen King’s pen name) has less lofty goals than grappling with Heidegger or picking at the scabs of barely-healed socio-political wounds, but it, too, manages a few startling revelations for the future. In between maimings and explosions.

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, The Running Man takes place in a near future (2017, yikes!) dystopia where economic collapse has precipitated the rise of a totalitarian state which, when not butchering its impoverished citizens, mollifies them via a series of ubiquitous, gruesome reality game shows. Schwarzenegger plays a cop named Ben Richards who, after refusing to fire his gunship on a crowd of starved, unarmed citizens, is forced to fight through a couple hundred blocks of rubble-strewn, sodium light-soaked urban hellscape, while contending with flamethrowing, razor-edged hockey stick-wielding roided-up opponents dressed in increasingly bizarre costumes in one such game show called – you guessed it – The Running Man. With a few buddies in tow, of course (Maria Conchita Alonso, Marvin J. McIntyre, and the criminally underused Yaphet Kotto). And he must save America from tyranny by getting some computer code to a makeup-aged Mick Fleetwood (from Fleetwood Mac) so his group of freedom fighters can hijack the television satellite and broadcast the truth to the people, setting them free.

That sounds like a lot to expect from a game show contestant, but, given the choice, I submit I’d rather have a go at a chainsaw-wielding, armored defensive lineman on a motocross bike than be marooned on an island with a bunch of narcissistic assholes (I’m looking at you Survivor). But, hey, that’s just me.

But you get the picture; the world of The Running Man is a police state. And though our present may be a less obvious dystopia, there are a few modern examples of totalitarianism that would seem right at home in the alternate 2017 of The Running Man. A militarized police force? State sanctioned police violence? Unfettered domestic surveillance? Suspension of habeas corpus? Persecution of whistleblowers? Remote assassination of US citizens that have neither been charged nor convicted with a crime? Check, check, check, check, check, and check.

Though maybe not as urgently troubling as a murderous, spying police state, the implications of a citizenry made docile through ever-present distraction is perhaps no more relevant than now. We haven’t been pacified by televised combat to the death, but the effect of ubiquitous and cheap technology has had essentially the same effect. Social media, data phones, tablets, computers, video games (phone, PC, and console), and the granddaddy of them all, TV, monopolizes our time and distracts us to the extent that we hardly seem to notice what’s going on around us. And what we do notice, outside of celebrity gossip and pop culture news, evaporates with the ending of the 24 hour news cycle. Things we should care about (civil liberties, volunteerism, washing our fucking dishes) take a backseat to Facebook, Instagram, and Candy Crush. We might be inclined to help that guy sleeping on the sidewalk if we could take our noses out of our phones for 30 seconds. But no, that’ll have to wait. I need to take this selfie and post it to my social media channels while the light is good.

These are all realities, not fiction. But the world of The Running Man isn’t all doom and gloom. If you’re rich.

Appliances and lights are voice activated (Alexa? Siri?) in this alternate 2017. Flights and hotels are booked via a television, keyboard, and mouse-like joystick. And remember when Industrial Light and Magic mapped Peter Cushing’s face onto some other dude’s body? When the producers of The Running Man realize they can’t kill Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards, and the audience begins to turn on them, they map his face on some other guy’s body and record one of the gladiators (Jesse Ventura) killing him. The strange thing is, is these technologies are readily available to most strata of our modern society. Even that homeless guy you stepped over while thumbing down that one uncle’s Facebook post about Donald Trump has a cell phone.

They’ve got us. All of us. And we seem content to have been had. Ben Richards isn’t coming to save us. And even if he is, we won’t be able to look up from our phones long enough to notice.

What The Running Man gets right, it mostly gets right by accident (though its totalitarian America is probably meant as a less-than-subtle dig by King at the Reagan administration), because the movie clearly doesn’t take itself seriously. But it does have a lot of bad ass shit. Like a go cart-driving, opera-singing, Mohawk-wearing fat guy wearing a suit made of weaponized Light-Brites that fires bursts of deadly blue electricity, frying Runners in their tracks. Its got spandex-clad, G-string-assed dancers, cool lo-fi future tech, bad ass explosions, gruesome kills, a proto-Jerry Springer villain (played by real-life game show host Richard Dawson), and a video game-style plot that propels the movie toward a predictable, but gratifying, conclusion.

And it’s got atmosphere. The Running Man uses lighting, matte paintings, set design, and well-scouted location shoots to create a believably economically divided future Los Angeles. And the thing is, none of it is really that complex when you know what you’re looking at. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times (even within the last year), and until this viewing (when watching with a critical eye), I had never noticed how small this film actually is. The ruined, poverty-stricken parts of future L.A. are created via a few well-chosen locations. Underlit, debris-filled streets coupled with the rotting walls and sunken-in ceilings of long-vacated buildings set against matte paintings of vast, polluted cityscapes work to create a believable world that seems much more fully realized than it actually is. In reality, the same matte painting of the Los Angeles skyline (whose buildings seems inspired by Syd Mead’s work on Blade Runner) is recycled throughout the film to create the impression of scope and I’d wager the steel mill used as a detention center at the beginning of the film is also used as a stand in for the abandoned parts of L.A. that make up the game zone. (For those of you who care about this sort of thing, that same abandoned steel mill has been used in countless Hollywood productions including another Schwarzenegger film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, RoboCop, and the overlooked low budget Albert Pyun classic Nemesis.)

The Running Man comes off as dumb, bad ass fun set to a typical, but totally enjoyable, synth-pop score by Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun). Every performance is over-the-top (Arnold’s one-liners are among the worst in any of his films and his performance doesn’t do anything to improve them) and the plot is about as predictable as they come. You come to The Running Man, ironically enough, for the action and violence, you stay for the surprisingly skillful world building, the subtle (if underused) Yaphet Kotto and the unsubtle Dawson, and the truths it can maybe tell us about our present world. You might even find yourself wondering if The Running Man is brilliant social satire or completely accidental comedy. But it doesn’t really matter – it’s worthy of your appreciation either way.