The Forgotten Dystopian Pun Machine | The Running Man Turns 30

Forget Back to the Future day. Who cares what world Bobs Zemeckis and Gale predicted for us. This is 2017. This is the year Ben Richards is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. This is the year that America closes off its borders and censors all cultural activity.

My friends, 2017 is the year of The Running Man.

There are four films, that if they are on TV I will watch no matter how long they have already been on, no matter how many times I’ve watched them:

1) Total Recall
2) Demolition Man
3) Source Code
and 4) The Running Man.


Why do I love The Running Man so much? Is it the social commentary? Maybe the fact that it seems to have predicted the future to some degree? Maybe it’s the strong central performances from Arnie and co.?

Nope. None of those.  It’s because it’s big dumb fun. And if you don’t have to think too much while being relentlessly entertained – and The Running Man is nothing if not relentless – you find yourself returning again and again.

So why is the The Running Man so fun when the source material is bleak as hell?

The film is based on the Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) novel, where Ben Richards is a down on his luck fella desperately trying to provide for his wife and sick child under a totalitarian regime. In the book, Richards only signs up for the game show of the title because he’ll earn $100 an hour and even then he doesn’t even expect to survive, merely earn enough to make his family financially secure. While on the run he meets with a resistance group who encourage him to help bring down the TV networks who, the resistance explains, are merely there to distract, mislead and pacify. So he decides to help them, but Richard’s main motivation is to help his family and,  *spoiler alert*, it does not end well for nearly everyone involved.

The movie on the other hand, has him as a single man working as a police helicopter pilot who then gets wrongly convicted for a massacre during a food riot. His main motivation throughout the movie becomes a mission to clear his name with his attempts to bring down the network an added task. As such the stakes don’t seem as high because they aren’t personal. Richards may have lost his brother, but that is only casually referenced, and we never meet said brother so we have no attachment there. There is certainly nothing that could have been as heart wrenching as having his own family on the line.  The film also sees the game become more localised – in the book it is a nationwide game – this is probably a budgetary constraint, but in doing so it again takes away some of the tension. In the book Richards is hunted by law enforcement along with specialised hunters, but the movie takes away the cops and leaves cartoon like ‘stalkers’ that are more like psychopathic versions of 90’s Saturday TV Gladiators.

So with the film taking out one of the most integral parts of plot (Richards family) and making Richard’s initial motivation all about clearing his name it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is so great about the film.

Arnie’s acting is only a couple of points above his turn in Hercules In New York and everybody else doesn’t seem to want to stretch their chops too far either. The dialogue contains some of the most cheesy of the classic Arnold zingers: (after chopping stalker Buzzsaw in half with his own chainsaw)  “He had to split!”; (shouting after stalker Dynamo) “Hey, Christmas tree!”. As you can see, top notch stuff. But it’s just this sort of thing that makes the film so appealing. You may have read Headstuff’s ‘Best Worst Horror Movies‘ list this Halloween, and if a list of of the ‘Best Worst Sci Fi Films’ were to appear, it wouldn’t be surprising if this film made it. It doesn’t quite fall into the category of made for the SyFy Channel quality because it was a big Arnie vehicle in its day, but it does share TV movie qualities, and there’s a reason for that.

Arnie as Ben Richards in The Running Man. -
Arnie as Ben Richards in The Running Man. Source

When it was being made the original director Andrew Davis was fired. If he had stayed on the film would have almost certainly have turned out with a much less playful turn. Davis went on to direct, amongst other things, Harrison Ford’s own running man of sorts, The Fugitive, he also teamed up with Schwarzenegger again in the much less playful Collateral Damage.

Davis’s replacement was Paul Michael Glaser, a man best known at that time, and at this time for that matter, for playing Starsky in Starsky and Hutch. That’s not to say a TV star can’t make some decent movies – see Ron Howard – but The Running Man was always doomed to be cheesy. Glaser’s only directing credit at this point was a film called Band on the Hand, a crime movie that looked like Miami Vice, mainly because creator Michael Mann was producing, probably as a favour to Glaser as Mann had also been a writer on Starsky and Hutch. Oh, what an incestuous world Hollywood is. So when The Running Man fell into his lap, Glaser was never going to make a gritty dystopian thriller, no he was going to make a fast and fun dystopian thriller with puns.

About the puns. It should also come as no surprise that they’re there, when you realise the screenplay was penned by one Steven E. de Souza, the fella who co-wrote earlier Arnie pun-fest Commando and who would later go on to co-write the first two Die Hard movies. Which were directed by John McTiernan who, in 1987 – the same year as The Running Man – directed another Arnie vehicle, Predator. Like I said. Hollywood. Incestuous as hell.

So it seems that The Running Man, as much as I love it, was always going to be a bit cheesy and a bit pants. As Arnie put it (at least according to Wikipedia) it lost all it’s deep themes with the addition of Glaser,  but the question is: would it be as loved if Davis had stayed on and made it a hard going serious satire? Did it need the eye of a beloved TV cop to make it the thrill ride it became?

I can only think that, yes, yes it did.

Thank goodness for Starsky.

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