a critiQal film review The Running Man (1987)

Plot: In the year 2019, the world's most popular television show pits criminals against "stalkers" in a fight to the death. The system has worked so far - but it's never had to face the wrongfully convicted Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger).

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  • ...Arnold turns his classic 80's action hero persona on reality TV - and "Family Feud"'s Richard Dawson - in this action flick that's as enjoyable today as it ever was!

After thoroughly enjoying the adrenaline-pumping Eagle Eye (2008), we wanted to keep that excitement going and we knew that there used to be one man who was a sure bet for a fun action film: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking through our collection, we decided on his film The Running Man. Would it be able to keep our adrenal gland stimulated, or had it lost some of it’s appeal over the years?

Back in the 80’s, Arnold Schwarzenegger had found himself a solid action formula – star in films where he could go mono-a-mono with the toughest guys around to show off his strength, then toss in some one-liners to keep the film from getting to brutal. This formula allowed him to become one of the biggest action stars of all-time, and gave viewers such classics as Commando (1985), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and The Running Man, just to name a few.

While the acting in these films seems a bit dated today, the action sequences and one-liners still combine to get the adrenaline flowing and the funnybone tickling. Back in the 80’s, almost everyone would be able to spout at least one of Ah-nold’s classic one-liners (“I’ll Be Back” being a favorite), and probably still can to this day. That’s the staying power of these films – the one-liners keep them memorable, and viewers will continue to re-visit them for the action sequences. The same is true of The Running Man.

With Arnold being the star attraction, however, the films left little room for co-stars. Typically a girl was involved (in the case of The Running Man, a fun Maria Conchita Alonso) and the opponents tended to blend together. Neither the villains or the girl got much screen time (the girls, especially, blending together), but viewers didn’t really care, since it was all about Ah-nold.

The Running Man changes this pattern slightly by giving viewers a villain they already know – namely Richard Dawson. Everyone knew him as the host of “Family Feud” (TV), so to see him on the big screen as the host of an ultra-violent game show made him seem almost familiar, and he managed to bring off the role with unexpected flair – even managing to trade one-liners with Ah-nold himself (“I’ll be back,” says Arnold, prompting Dawson to fire back with “Only in a rerun”). Dawson manages to play this rather sadistic host to a T, and is equally enjoyable facing off against Schwarzenegger as he is handing out the “home game” version of the show to contestants, and is still a fun highlight of the film.

As most people probably know by now, The Running Man veers far off from the Richard Bachman/Stephen King short story version. In that version, the “game zone” is the whole world, and a lot more innocent bystanders are involved in the show – and there are no one-liners to be seen anywhere. In fact, the short story version is much grittier and depressing, and is barely recognizable as the same story. Still, it’s nice to see that Stephen King and Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to team up at least once – for fans of both, it was a match viewers never thought they would see.

The biggest surprise of The Running Man – which most would term a rather mindless, albeit entertaining, action flick – is how relevant it’s social commentary is to this day. Back in the 80’s, reality TV was almost non-existent, so to have a film like this come out – about an ultra-violent reality TV show – seemed rather far-fetched. These days, with reality TV taking the airwaves by storm, this plot doesn’t seem so far-fetched (so much so that one could easily picture a future edition of “Survivor” (TV) turning this way – heck, they’ve already got a name that fits). In fact, this concept is so modern-day that other, more recent films have tried this same tact (The Condemned (2007) being the most recent of these).

Maybe it’s the social commentary that today seems so Nostradamus-like in it’s predictions of the future that makes The Running Man such an endearing classic of the 80’s. Maybe. While that does make the film ring even truer these days, most will probably re-visit this film more to see Arnold in his action hero heyday than because of the social commentary.

While the brash so-called “acting” of some of the villains is rather ridiculous by this point (including occasional Arnold co-star turned also governor Jesse Ventura), The Running Man is still an enjoyable popcorn action flick even 2 decades later – and one I’ll continue to watch again and again.

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