The Running Man is very loosely based on the novel by Richard Bachman, sorry I mean Stephen King—who HATES the film, by the way. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger at his action-star peak, having come out the same year as Predator. The Running Man was directed by Starsky himself, Paul Michael Glaser, after Andrew Davis was fired two weeks into production. Alex Cox was offered it, and turning it down is one of his few professional regrets, but he was busy making Walker (which in turn blacklisted him from Hollywood.)
It’s one of those great ’80s futuristic fascist police-state films, and in this future of 2017(!) The United States has complete control over what media you consume. The biggest show on is The Running Man, which is basically American Gladiators, except that they actually KILL EACH OTHER. In fact, when American Gladiators was pitched, they showed clips of The Running Man and were quoted as saying “We’re doing exactly this — except the murdering part.”
Arnie plays Ben Richards, a police helicopter pilot who gets framed for a massacre. He soon escapes the labour camp he is thrown into, but soon enough he ends up as a contestant on The Running Man. He has to beat not just the other contestants, but also the fascist television network behind the show.
Screenwriter Steven E. de Souza was “the shit” when it came to late ’80s and early ’90s action films. He wrote perhaps the greatest action film of all time, Die Hard, its first sequel Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Commando and, along with my pal Daniel Waters, was one of the writers on the notorious bomb Hudson Hawk (which is a great satire on Bruce Willis’ persona.) And that’s just a few, never mind all the films he isn’t credited on. It’s a very witty script that predates all the evil of reality television to come, as well as the Patriot Act under the Bush administration and the expansion of the NSA.
Glaser was not Arnie’s favourite director—he complained he “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” The fact that Glaser shot it like that actually adds to the film, because it’s about the perils of mass media control. I think Arnie thought he had another The Terminator with this film, and not this very silly satire. Jesse Ventura appears in his most steroid-induced self as Captain Freedom, who has perhaps bigger tits than Arnie, which is saying something. Ventura has admitted to trying steroids in his wrestling days, but has always denied that he got that into them… this and Predator are clear evidence he is full of shit about it, just as much as he often was on his widely entertaining show Conspiracy Theory.
The Running Man remains one of the best Arnie vehicles, and has something to say about how we consume media and who is behind the media that we consume. It’s certainly no They Live in terms of its satirical bite, but it’s an insanely enjoyable and quite rewatchable ride of a movie. Besides Arnie and Jesse, the cast includes Yaphet Kotto, Jim Brown, the great character actor Kurt Fuller, and even musician Mick Fleetwood, Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil and, finally, Eddie Bunker!
The disc is more or less a direct port of the original Lionsgate US Blu-Ray, with audio commentary from Paul Michael Glaser, producer Tim Zinnemann and another executive producer, Rob Cohen. The featurettes are actually about the 9/11 Patriot Act and its encroachment on our freedom and a more general one on reality television. It’s worth noting that The Running Man was predated by Shock Treatment, which also had a doomy message about reality television.