The Running Man's Goofy, Violent Dystopia Hasn't Arrived Yet, Alas

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Right around New Year's Day, I saw a bit of online chatter pointing out that we were entering the year depicted in Back to the Future II, and that to our great disappointment, we still don't have hoverboards or '80s-themed diners. Tragic as that may be, I'm more concerned that we're now only two years away from the dystopian hell of the 1987 movie The Running Man. That means we have only 24 months to squeeze in a worldwide economic collapse, the rise of a totalitarian American police state, and the emergence of a violent televised bloodsport in which garishly costumed assassins hunt down and execute convicts. We need to get on that! Time's a-wastin'!

There's not a lot of world-building in this movie; its producers weren't all that concerned with coming up with well-developed characters or a plausible plot or a movie-world that looks like anything other than a cheap soundstage. The script is comprised almost entirely of one-liners and catchphrases. The whole idea of mob mentality is mostly expressed through the timeless conduit of the old lady who cusses a lot. And the cast barely has any actual actors in it.

Instead, in prominent roles, we get two pro wrestlers (Jesse Ventura, Professor Toru Tanaka), one power-lifter (Gus Rethwisch), one all-time football great (Jim Brown), one son of a rock star (Dweezil Zappa), one actual rock star (Mick Fleetwood, somehow made up to look older than he looks right now), and one sitcom veteran who found his greatest fame as a talk-show host (Richard Dawson, the best thing about the movie). And at the center of everything, we've got Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former bodybuilding champion who stumbled into becoming the greatest movie star of his age. As you well know by now, as an actor, the guy lives beyond petty distinctions of "good" and "bad," but he's maybe not the guy you want anchoring a cast so stuffed with non-actors that it looks like one of Steven Soderbergh's weird experimental movies.


The Running Man is a satirical movie, and it's not the only time, or the best time, Schwarzenegger would go down that road. Total Recall, which he'd make three years later, tackles a lot of the same themes with a lot more force and clarity. (It is, after all, a real Verhoeven movie, rather than a fake one.) But The Running Man still has things to say about media manipulation and mass bloodlust. It's based on a Stephen-King-as-Richard-Bachman novel I've never read, and it opens with Schwarzenegger, as a police helicopter pilot, pulling a Crimson Tide and refusing to annihilate a crowd of unarmed civilians ("To hell with you!"). When he's conscripted into the death-obsessed game show, he has to kill his way out while turning the audience in his favor. We're seeing a grotesque reflection of reality, one where the crowd just wants to see death and they don't care how it happens. When Schwarzenegger refuses to kill an incapacitated enemy, the studio crowd boos.

Of course, there's a tension there, because this is not an anti-violence movie in any way. It is violent as fuck. It tsk-tsks the future crowd's demands to see guts while openly pandering to the 1987 crowd's demands to see guts. We get one great exploding head in an early prison-riot scene, and Schwarzenegger finds fun and inventive ways to kill the fuck out of the show's designated "stalkers," including and not limited to a chainsaw to the dick. If you were a child reared in the '80s, The Running Man was a movie geared to all your bases impulses. You probably remember it fondly for just that reason.

Actually, The Running Man has no business being anywhere near as good as it is. The movie's producers fired its director, Andrew David (who'd go on to make Under Siege and The Fugitive, and who is thus an action-movie hall-of-famer), because he took too long putting together that great prison-break sequence; they replaced him with Paul Michael Glaser, who'd barely directed anything, but had played Starsky on Starsky & Hutch. (Glaser went on to direct, among other things, the charming figure-skating rom-com The Cutting Edge and the instant-punchline Shaq vehicle Kazaam. Later on, he got a job as an actor on Third Watch. Weird career.)


You can tell how quickly Glaser had to slap the movie together by how choppy and incoherent it gets. The action scenes, for instance, are pretty jangled and nonsensical. Why, for instance, did Dynamo drive his car straight up a pile of rubble? Did Schwarzenegger even have to do anything to flip it over? Why did the set decorators leave barrels of oil lying around when one of their star killers was a guy with a flamethrower? A lot of the plotting doesn't bear the weight of scrutiny, either. Why did the state-controlled TV station leave their mobile satellite uplink (or whatever) hidden on the set of their most popular game show? And if the economy was shot, why did they install gigantic TV screens in every imaginable public space? Wouldn't that get expensive?

But The Running Man is also awesome, largely for how dumb and impractical it is. The movie doesn't dwell on its inconsistencies; instead, it seems to have fun with them. Probably drawing on the steroid-era WWF (in full swing at the time), it turns all its killers into garish and amazing cartoon characters with bulging weapons and signature weapons and mean dispositions. Dynamo, for instance, is a gigantic fat guy with blinky lights all over his armor and a huge plastic Mohawk affixed to his head. He shoots lightning from his gloves and sings opera while he's warming up to kill people. Even better: Jesse Ventura is "Captain Freedom," the retired champion stalker who gets called back into action when Schwarzenegger kills everyone else. He refuses—not because he sees the error of his ways, or because Schwarzenegger has won his approval, but because he doesn't like the direction in which the show is going. "This is a sport of death and honor! Code of the gladiator!," he roars as he throws down his gimmicky weapons. Captain Freedom is a dystopian celebrity-murderer purist, dammit.


And as Killian, the show-in-movie's slimy host and showrunner, Richard Dawson is just incredible. Dawson was the host of Family Feud at the time, so he's really just playing a cartoonishly evil version of himself, or of his own public persona. He pulls no punches, bullying and oozing and then soaking in the adulation of his brainless fans. He wants Schwarzenegger on the show because he looks at the guy and sees money. Catching a glimpse of his prison-break footage on the news, Dawson croons, "Helloooooo, gorgeous!" It might be the best of the movie's many, many punchlines, though I do love when Schwarzenegger says, "He had to split" after sawing a guy in half.

It's tempting to say that The Running Man predicted reality TV, even if the movie's version of the show looks like no reality show that's ever aired, and even if we, as a society, have never forced TV contestants to do anything more dehumanizing than eat cow balls or whatever. I think that's a bit overstated: We're still coming up with new fictional dystopias where we watch people kill each other on TV, and it isn't really any closer to actually happening. But there is one funny through-line. In The Running Man, Killian has a troupe of negligee-clad, big-haired, insanely '80s female dancers. They're the fictional show's Fly Girls, I guess, and they're there to underline, with as little subtlety as possible, how the movie's reality looks at murder as entertainment. The movie's choreographer was a pre-pop stardom Paula Abdul, and a decade and a half later, she'd be a judge on the biggest reality show that the world has ever produced—one that, to be fair, only dashed its contestants' music-stardom dreams, rather than their brains. I wonder if the irony ever occurred to her. I'm thinking no.


Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.


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