I’m pretty sure that I was in my early teens when I had my first introduction to Arnie’s The Running Man, and it was on a third or fourth generation pirate video. I must admit as I can’t stand to watch copy films now, but at the time there was something about the poor grainy effect of pirates that made videos that weren’t yet on general video release that bit more exciting.
Based on a short story by Richard Bachman (a pseudonym used by Stephen King), The Running Man is set in the near future of 2017, the world’s economy has collapsed (sounds familiar), and cities have become military-controlled police states with control over all types of media. America’s number one television programme, The Running Man, is shown 24 hours a day, seven days a week. America’s criminals have a choice: serve your time, or play for your freedom on the violent TV game show. Criminals are hunted down by the show’s “stalkers”, and then engaged in a battle to the death (which the criminal usually loses). But they didn’t count on one contestant…
Ben Richards (played by Arnie) is a police officer blamed for the brutal deaths of innocent civilians and branded “the Butcher of Bakersfield.” Ben escapes from a high-security prison along with two other convicts, Weiss and Laughlin (the latter played by Yaphet Kotto of Homicide, Life on the Street and Alien fame).
While on the run, Ben takes a hostage, Amber Mendez. Mendez works for the network that produces The Running Man and she later turns Richards into the police. Now it’s show time. Damon Killion (Richard Dawson) the show’s creator and host sees Ben Richards as a must-have for his show to gain even more ratings. Richards, his two fellow ‘running men’ and, later, Mendez wind up in a race against time to win the contest and bring down the network. I must confess that I didn’t actually enjoy The Running Man as much as I thought I would! Don’t get me wrong, I still like the film but it doesn’t really have the action factor of, say, Commando or Total Recall. Having said that, this film still has some of the funniest one liners – the soul of any good Arnie flick!
The stalkers, who come in the shape of Sub Zero, Buzz Saw, Dynamo, Fireball and Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura), also had the entertainment factor with their oh-so macho hard-man lines that kept me laughing. The TV programme with Captain Freedom’s work-out was a brilliant little add-on, and I think may have inspired Ben Stiller’s character in Dodgeball.
The kills are very much in the vein of other 80s Arnie films. One of my favourites is Buzz Saw getting his chainsaw shoved up his crotch and the pitch of his scream getting higher and higher. Arnie’s passing comment when asked what happened to Buzz Saw – “he had to split” – still had me in stitches. But it’s Dynamo who gets the biggest laughs: When Arnie taunts him with comments like, “Hey, lightbulb head” and “Hey, Christmas tree”, he lets out this really campy, operatic war cry. The little old lady who decides to back Ben instead of the stalkers in the “who will get the next kill” part of the game show was superb: When told that she had to pick a stalker she promptly told Killion that she can pick whoever she chooses, and she chooses Richards because “that boy is one mean mother ******”.
This line still doesn’t top The Running Man’s moment of post-modern self-reference. Our hero is strapped into what looks like a toboggan, waiting to be fired into what was meant to be his doom, while a TV audience of millions watches. The host of The Running Man is geeing up the crowds. Arnie glares up at the host. “Killion,” he snarls, “I’ll be back.” And then something happens that I have never known to happen before, the bad guy gets the final word! “Only,” purrs Killion calmly, “in a rerun.”
Did he just mock Arnie’s catchphrase? How dare you! You deserve everything that’s coming to you at the end of the movie! And get it he does. As he’s begging for his life, blaming everything he has done on peer pressure and giving the crowd what it want, Arnie shoves him into the toboggan and fires him to his certain death. The toboggan hurtles through a billboard with Killion’s face on it – up it goes up in a ball of flames. Arnie’s take on Killion’s demise is, “That hit the spot”! Pure 80s macho genius. Bravo Arnie, bravo.