I try not to go to the Arnold Schwarzenegger well too often. After all, the man’s entire career has a place on this blog. Ever since he made is debut as Hercules in “Hercules In New York,” his acting career has been a virtual litany of bad action movies or just plain bad movies meant for late-night viewing or TBS weekend marathons. For every “T2: Judgement Day,” there’s a “Junior,” “Red Heat,” or in the case of tonight’s entry, 1987′s “The Running Man.”
The plot of “The Running Man” is relatively simple: In the year 2017, Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is framed for a crime he didn’t commit and then forced to be a contestant in The Running Man, a network game show where criminals are hunted by Stalkers –– high-powered thugs sponsored by the network. The entire goal of the game show is to distract the broken, disenfranchised populace from just how terrible the totalitarian society has become.
Usually, sci-fi movies overshoot futurist predictions, but thanks to the recent economic collapse, the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the entire world’s obsession with reality TV, the idea of the country being obsessed with a manhunt-style game show within seven years doesn’t seem too far-fetched. I’d say we’ve got a 30 percent chance of a Running Man scenario in the next seven years, though those odds could go up dramatically after November.
Schwarzenegger is his usual one-liner-tossing self as Richards, but again, his natural charisma and self awareness elevates the role and therefore the movie above made-for-TV fare. He notoriously loved taglines and catchphrases in his scripts, but here it makes sense, as they cut the tension and keep a movie with admittedly low production values from taking itself too seriously. In this clip, Richards dispatches Buzz Saw, a Stalker with –– wait for it –– a giant chainsaw.
“The Running Man” was based on the Stephen King book of the same name the way that frosting is based on food coloring, cake is based on flour, or ice cream is based on rock salt. King’s story, which he published in 1982 under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, was about a young, thin man named Ben Richards who was unable to get work in a dystopian United States and finally applied to be a contestant at the Games Federation in Co-Op City. Richards had a sick daughter that desperately needed medicine and that was his motivation for entering.
Rather than saying “Based on the novel by Stephen King,” as it does in the credits, it would have been more accurate had the credits read, “Based on Louis Fassbender’s high school book report of the book by Stephen King.” Ignoring the inaccuracy, Paul Michael Glaser’s version features way more explosions, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, and Mick Fleetwood. Yes, Mick Fleetwood. Here, Ventura plays Captain Freedom, a retired Stalker who’s taken up another line of work.
What was an embittered comment on the state of star culture and Reaganomics in the 80s became an enjoyably ridiculous vehicle for Schwarzenegger, built on bad jokes and a hackneyed revolution plot meant to overthrow the Games Federation and clear Richards of his criminal charges. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that both of these things happen, but the movie doesn’t really address what happens next. The rebels are still impoverished, the sick are still sick, and the government that got them where they are is still in power. “The Running Man” is a perfectly serviceable action movie, especially by 3 a.m. standards where its bright colors and flashing lights help hold waning attention spans and its simple plot is easy to follow.
But in this age of remakes and reboots, “The Running Man” might be one worth doing. The tenets of its story still work and, if anything, are even more relevant now. What’s more, either version, the book or the movie would make a solid adaptation, but for now I’ll have to settle for Joan Allen and Jason Statham in “Death Race.”