This well-known slice of late-’80s silliness was made by Starsky himself, Paul Michael Glaser, who took over after Andrew Davis was fired a week into the shoot. For the uninitiated it’s based on a novel by Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) and set in a future – 2017, to be precise – where a worldwide economic collapse has resulted in a totalitarian US police state that controls the population through TV propaganda. In order to keep the peace a popular and violent TV show in which criminal contestants are hunted down and killed serves as a bread and circuses-style distraction – much like The Hunger Games – and into this cheap-looking arena of gladiatorial combat lurches Arnold Schwarzenegger’s freedom fighter Ben Richards. I guess you could make a case for The Running Man being classic Ah-nold, given the year of release and the fact that he’s required to do little other than fight, shoot and light cigars, but even by his usual low standards the line reading in-between the moronic action sequences is extremely poor (though I can’t think of a single actor who could have made the screenplay’s weak punchlines work). There’s an entertaining, Verhoeven-like campness to the first half hour that’s briefly promising – in fact there are a few ideas here that Verhoeven, or possibly his writers, pinched for Total Recall – but before long Glaser’s film starts going round in ever decreasing circles as Richards and a couple of friends do battle with one ridiculous TV show bad guy after another: there’s an opera singer in a plastic car who shoots electric bolts from his fingertips (yes, really), another warrior who toasts his opponents with a flamethrower, a bruiser with a chainsaw, and so on. Amidst all the combat there’s some guff about a resistance force and an uplink, but it’s thinly-veiled padding of the worst kind, and it looks like most of this thread was left on the cutting room floor; in its released state this is little more than a big screen beat-em-up with a series of end-of-level bosses.
The villain of the piece is Richard Dawson’s ruthless game show host, and sadly we never get to find out who his paymasters are, or anything regarding the TV network’s relationship with the government. In fact Glaser fails to expand on any of the wider issues – much to Schwarzenegger’s chagrin, apparently – and instead relies heavily on presumed audience indifference to the machinations of this society, assuming that people will be happy enough as long as Arnie is quipping and punching. There was certainly space within the film’s running time to expand on the scenario, but instead the director chose to fill it with hundreds of reaction shots of various people in crowds (those in the studio audience, those outside betting on proceedings, etc.), which quickly becomes every bit as inane as it sounds. Considering the world’s economy has supposedly collapsed it seems as though most of the main characters and extras are well-dressed, have jobs and can afford to drink in bars or gamble on the outcome of TV shows, which is weird, but I can’t be bothered to examine the film’s logic any further as it falls apart quicker than slow-cooked pulled pork. Of course The Running Man isn’t supposed to be taken seriously, and if you’re in the right mood it’ll give you a few laughs, particularly when Mick Fleetwood shows up as a resistance leader who looks like he’s been on tour with Dexy’s Midnight Runners for the past year. However, like most of the cheaply-rendered sci-fi of the era it has aged badly – the joke of having grey-haired sweet old ladies saying words like ‘motherfucker’ was well-worn by the early 1990s – and although it makes a few prescient points about reality TV it’s likely the credit for that should go to Stephen King, rather than anyone directly involved with this film.
Directed by: Paul Michael Glaser.
Written by: Steven E. de Souza. Based on The Running Man by Richard Bachman.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, María Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Richard Dawson, Marvin McIntyre, Mick Fleetwood, Jesse Ventura.
Cinematography: Thomas del Ruth.
Editing: John Wright, Mark Warner, Edward A. Warschilka.
Music: Harold Faltermeyer.
Running Time: 101 minutes.