The Grab Bag: The Running Man (1987)

The Grab Bag this week is full of goodness is the form of one of my favorite films. There’s tons of fun stuff when you look back at ‘80’s action films, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for those set in a dystopian future. So we’re talking your Robocop, Timecop, Demolition Man, Darkman, and so forth. Then there’s tonight’s film. A film featuring musicians, governors, game show hosts, wrestlers, and some of the greatest/worst one liners in cinema history. So now brought to you by the Department of Justice: Entertainment Division, the most popular show in the world, it’s time for….
The Running Man (1987) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Jess Ventura, Jim Brown, Richard Dawson, Professor Toru Tanaka, Mick Fleetwood, Dweezil Zappa, Marvil J. McIntyre, and Sven Ole-Thorson. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser.

When a food riot breaks out in the Bakersfield community, helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) and his crew scan the crowd and find them unarmed, but when Richards is given the order to open fire, he refuses. After a struggle he gets overpowered by the other men, and more than 60 people died that day. They are told their killer was a rogue officer who opened fire on his own, a man they call the Butcher of Bakersfield, Ben Richards. 

Imprisoned, Richards, along with jailed revolutionaries Laughlin and Weiss (Kotto and McIntyre), make a daring escape. Ben makes his way to the city and his brother’s apartment, but he finds his brother has been taken away for reeducation. Instead, Amber Mendez (Alonso), a composer for ubiquitous television station ICS, is living there, and Richards takes her hostage in an attempt to leave the city. 

At the airport, his plan falls apart, and he wakes in the clutches of Killian (Dawson) the host of the worlds most popular game show, The Running Man. Ben is given a choice to participate in the game or his friends Weiss and Laughlin will go in his place. So Ben becomes a contestant. Dropped along with Weiss and Laughlin into a desolated area made up of 400 blocks , Richards must use every trick he has to escape the deadly hunters who roam the area looking to take them out. Weiss realizes that the main transmitter for ICS is located in the area, and now they must survive to take the information to Mick and the underground so Killian and ICS can be put out of business once and for all. 

The Bugg Picture

I know that was quite a long synopsis, but I so very much love this film. It’s up there with Big Trouble in Little China as a flick that never loses its luster. However, on the whole it’s not a terribly good movie. The script is full of the corniest jokes. The action is limited and the special effects poor. The best acting comes from Richard Dawson. Still, The Running Man turns out to be one damn enjoyable flick. 

While I said the story was based on the novella by Steven King, perhaps what I should have said is inspired by. There is very little apart from the show and the names of the hero and villain that remain from the novella. While King’s story is a tragic tale of a man pushed too far by an evil corperation, Glaser’s The Running Man veers
more toward commentary on social decadence. The government with its hand in entertainment, the television the ultimate purveyor of justice, and the public, full of rabid bloodlust, wagering on the outcome. In an era when the line between politics and entertainment are blurred and reality programming still rules the airwaves of the major networks, it seems even less far fetched now than in the 80’s that Killian could make a call to “the President’s agent”. 

So while the themes of the movie still feel compelling and interesting, the acting is as bad as ever. Arnie does his thing though, so how can you really criticize. Coming off a string of successes, Schwarzenegger beats bad guys down, chomps on cigars, and delivers a string of bad one liners. Now when I say bad, what I really mean is great. Let me give you my top 3 favorites:

3. (After strangling a man to death) He was a real pain in the neck. 

2. (In response to Killian telling him to drop dead) I don’t do requests.

1. (When he’s fed up with the revolutionaries) Uplink underground, uplink underground. If you say that one more time, I’ll uplink your ass, and you’ll be underground. 

There’s tons more, but I won't go into them. Suffice to say that Arnie is Arnie. His compatriots fare far worse though Yaphet Kotto definitely phoned in his performance as Laughlin, and McIntyre’s Weiss seems to be more of a plot device than a character. I did enjoy some of the other performers very much though. Not only was she very cute and reminded me of a mixture between Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz (like having Banditas rolled up in one package), Maria Conchita Alonso actually manages to infuse her character with a degree of personality that I’m sure was not on the page. 

The cameos from Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac and Dweezil Zappa of having been given a messed up name by his father Frank, give the film an extra little something for music fans. In fact it is slightly implied that Mick Fleetwood is playing himself. Cause, you know, in a dystopian future the leader of the revolutionaries would be a 60+ year old retired rock star famous for being the drummer in a band that rules Adult Contemporary radio. Who are his Lieutenants, Michael Bolton and James Taylor?

The best actor award here has to go to Richard Dawson. Probably best known for his Family Feud days, Dawson was no stranger to acting. After all he appeared on 168 episodes of Hogan’s Heroes as Cpl. Peter Newkirk. He would go on to make a few films before becoming something of a professional celebrity contestant on many shows in the early ‘70’s. Then in 1976, he started hosting the Feud, and the rest is history. Dawson’s Killian worked so well because you could see the impish glee with which the man approached his role, and lets be honest there was more than a little of his own television persona in the character.

The Running Man would be nothing without the hunters though and what a great group that assembled to play these guys. You’ve got Jesse ‘The Body” Ventura as retired hunter/ commentator Captain Freedom. Former football star and longtime actor Jim Brown appearing as Fireball. Professor Toru Tanaka, the former wrestler and tag team partner of Mr. Fuji, as the killer hockey player Sub Zero. Opera singer Erland van Lidth shows up as the electrifying and attempted rapeifying Dynamo. Finally, Gus Rethwisch, who had just played Arnold the Barbarian in House II: The Second Story, as the chainsaw wielding Buzzsaw. 

Director Paul Michal Glaser (a.k.a  Starsky) never really made another worthwhile film, and if you don’t believe me, let me just say that he made Kazaam. Yet for one film, the forces of Steven King, campy goodness, and sci fi cult goodness came together to create something special. The Running Man might not be one of the great films of all time, but it’s one of the greatest films to put on if I just want to kick back and have a mindless good time. 

The Bugg Rating 


  1. All of the Bachman Books were outstanding. For me RAGE was the best!

  2. Great post. I love this movie. I've been a big fan of it since I first saw it. I just watched it again recently.

  3. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobApril 6, 2009 at 6:02 PM

    i always liked the song that accompanys the end titles, (although the film itself is still pretty good as well), and maria conchita alonso still drives me wild with lust and desire (even now at the age of 50), another great reveiw by the way, and happy easter from your good buddy "the sneering (homo-phobic) snob.

  4. Sweet! I happened to catch this again on tv the other night - I like it, but for lack of better description, it's very "red." Everything's red. And kinda cheap-looking. But it's ok. The story is so good, and Arnie and Jesse and everyone else are so great, I don't care.

  5. To my mind, this is Arnold's single best movie. The book was completely different (its actually my favorite Bachman book, and probably my favorite of King's career in general), yeah, but the movie's still great too. Richard Dawson is indeed the man in this flick. "Who loves you, and who do you love?" I really dig the score too. Great movie. Great review. Kudos.


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