In 2017 the economy is a mess, the US is in the grip of authoritarianism and a TV show host has unparalleled political power, so it is an apt time to watch the futuristic dystopia from the 1980s set in 2017: The Running Man.
The Running Man starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably peak Arnie. A year later Twins allowed Schwarzenegger to branch out into broader roles and other film genres, and while Total Recall was yet to come, Running Man packages all the expected qualities of a cinematic fast-food feast. Violent, silly, packed with morbid quips and an inevitable “I’ll be back”.
The opening credits (which interspersed with the opening scenes of the film) are themselves a strange cultural time capsule. Some of this is happenstance and some of this is due to odd casting.
- “Paul Michael Glaser” yes, I’d forgotten that this film was DIRECTED by Starsky!
- “Mick Fleetwood” yes, for reasons unknown the ageing leader of the resistance is the founder and drummer of Fleetwood Mac.
- “Dweezil Zappa” i.e.Frank Zappa junior is the second in command of the resistance – naturally
- “Richard Bachmann” as we all know the original story being written by the pseudonymous Stephen King
- “Jesse Ventura” who was also in Predator with Arnie and who also later became Governor of Minnesota plays Captain Freedom
Like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop that was released the same year, The Running Man mixed action and social/political satire with odd comical twists. Lees subtle and thoughtful than Verhoeven, the film still crams in sight gags (a poster for a TV show called “The Hate Boat”) along with observations about media manipulation. But were Verhoeven seems to be always aware of how his films play with being complicit with what they criticise, The Running Man just runs along with it.
So either by design or by ironic unawareness, the film’s multiple 1980’s cliches and issues often work in its favour. Cliched 1980s dancers (choreographed by Paula Abdul!)? Satire or not? The way ethnic diversity reflects the dystopian society (PoC characters are either poor, victims in the show, part of the resistance or the gladiatorial ‘Stalkers’ in the game) or the blinkered vision of 1980’s casting (or both at the same time – who can tell!).
More obviously a reflection of 1980s film values is the limited role for women. Maria Conchita Alonso role is significant but her character gets little control over events until near the end. Running through the film is an implied threat of sexual violence (and at one point an overt threat) including early in the film where she is kidnapped by Schwarzenegger.
Veteran comedian and game show host Richard Dawson as “Damon Killian”, the obnoxious host of the titular game show, is the lynch pin of the film. He manages to combine a plausible charisma and cynicism that holds the chaotic mess of elements together.
Dated, weird, odder than you remember – The Running Man is not a great film. The sound editing is weak, and other aspects just feel lazy. Yet, in its own madcap, bonkers, 1980s way it still delivers an entertaining 100 minutes of movie. A prophetic vision of the actual 2017? No, but the parallels are easy to draw.