From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“In a dystopian America, a falsely convicted policeman gets his shot at freedom when he must forcibly participate in a TV game show where convicts, runners, must battle killers for their freedom.”
I don’t often do this, but I’m going to make a rare exception: though many of you might disagree, I’m going to tell you how – if I could go back in time and have been put in charge of bringing 1987’s The Running Man to bold theatrical life – I would make the feature into something special.
Okay, okay, okay: calm down.
I know that a good number of regular readers to SciFiHistory.Net quite probably both love and worship this Paul Michael Glaser-directed production. It was reasonably popular back in the day, serving as one of the films that definitely cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reputation in the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy. (In fact, I’ve read that a good number of fans think it his best performance, but I won’t even go there.) Screenwriter Steven E. de Souza adapted the Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King novel) for the big screen, so its pedigree is solid. But I think my issues with it could very easily have been corrected with a slightly different edit, and the resulting story could very well have elevated the effort even further in the minds of those who worship All Things Genre as much as I do. So, yes, I think the current incarnation is a bit … well … goofy … and, yet, it still has some of ‘the right stuff’ required to turn out grand.
So … why don’t I do this? Let me explain as briefly as possible what I dislike about the film – that is my purview, after all, as a critic – and you can either agree or disagree. Then after I get that out of the way, I’ll tell you what changes I’d make in order to deliver an edit that would’ve given audiences something to think about.
It isn’t uncommon for a feature’s footage to get re-used creatively, and that is my biggest bugaboo about Running. The film’s opening sequence presents the audience with a backstory; and in it our hero Ben Richards (played by Schwarzenegger) – as an aerial police officer – is shown both defying orders to fire on defenseless rioters and resisting the arrest put forth on him by his fellow guardians of the peace. Later in the story, viewers are presented a second draft of this exact same footage, but – this time – it’s been cleverly edited to give the appearance that Richards’ act of defiance was firing on the helpless crowd; necessarily, his resisting arrest is now depicted as his fellow workers trying to stop him from butchering untold dozens of men, women, and children.
Or … let me take this idea one step further because, quite frankly, Running Man employs a bit of trickery in its second half that honestly already opened this door. I’m quite surprised that no one involved in pre-production saw this idea and leapt at it.
Late in the film, the audience is let in on the fact that gameshow host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) and his production company executives aren’t above outright fabricating reality for the sake of its entertainment value. To that end, The Running Man airs footage of last season’s alleged winners, all of them presumably living it up in paradise. While we later learn that these tiny moments have been manufactured digitally, we really get a view behind the curtain once Killian and his co-conspirators begin creating scenes of Richards’ and Amber Mendez’s (Maria Conchita Alonso) demise at the hands of Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). Because the script supposes that such technology exists, why didn’t they merely create said faux footage of Richards’ carrying out his campaign of death on the unsuspecting citizenry? Wouldn’t that have swung open the door for even more vivid carnage? Also, it could’ve given Richards an earlier indication that ‘something was afoot’ – it could’ve given him the chance to say a line like “that’s impossible as the helicopter had no in-flight recorder” or something – and such a development would’ve been a bit more organic.
Still … I have one more suggestion, and here’s where I think The Running Man could truly have been something special, almost on par with a good deal of what Paul Verhoeven achieved with Schwarzenegger a few years later with 1990’s Total Recall. (Yes, yes, and yes: I do believe Total Recall is one of the highpoints in the actor’s whole career, but that’s an argument for another day and another time.)
Imagine that instead of opening up with this helicopter preamble with Richards and the other police defenders that the film merely opened with our hero’s prison escape. The set-up in the aerial sequence is clearly intended to show that Arnold was our leading man, but suppose we went into all of this truly not knowing? Imagine how the first half of the film could’ve played out if we didn’t know if Richards was a good man or a bad man? Don’t misunderstand me: yes, Richard would ultimately be the hero of the film, but we wouldn’t know what really went down until vastly later in this story. This nebulousness of his morality would’ve kept us watching much more closely at the signs along the way; and it could’ve mirrored those sentiments of “is this real or is this a memory implant” that fueled the wild ride that was to become Total Recall. This rather simple edit could’ve allowed director Glaser to use the already shot helicopter footage later in the film; and it could also have kept Mendez’s suspicions as to what was really on the ‘unedited footage’ chip she steals from the television studio.
As it is, Running Man feels as if it was too deliberately crafted to be an Arnold epic. The one-liners are, frankly, a bit atrocious; and such verbal chicanery often cheapens what could’ve been a stronger moment. Glaser should’ve let his strongman be a bit quieter – hell, the script even gives Arnold the chance to repeat the line he made famous a few years earlier in The Terminator (1984) so there’s no doubt all of these quips were intended – and I’d argue that the result would’ve been admired by more than just the same audiences ultimately lampooned within the satire. Was that the intended point? To make the viewers feel guilty as they’re little more than those shown on screen? I’m never a big fan of being insulted by any production, so color me offended, if you must.
Though my complaints don’t stop here, I’m perfectly comfortable leaving this as is. To me, The Running Man will always be that flick that truly missed an opportunity to be greater than the sum of its parts (and its central message), and it could very easily have been positioned as one of the smartest and savviest in all of the former governor of California’s professional career. Instead, it took the easy way out, giving the lion’s share of the attention to the narrative gimmick of having a good man running for his life. Yeah, that’s clever, but – as I said – it’s still a McGuffin … and McGuffin only work and last for so long. A smarter story – along with smarter characters – could’ve made this one for the ages.
The Running Man (1987) was produced by TAFT Entertainment Pictures, Keith Barish Productions, Home Box Office, and Braveworld Productions. According to a quick Google.com search, the feature is (presently) available for rental or for purchase on such platforms as Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon.com. (FYI: I watched it on Prime Video, in fact.) As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds to what the platform advertised as a 4K restoration were astoundingly grand. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? As I viewed this one via streaming, there were no special features to consider.
It isn’t as if I don’t enjoy The Running Man (1987) because it has its charms, albeit few. My take on the film is that it didn’t quite go far enough – its satiric notes ring true but could’ve been expanded in so, so, so many ways – and instead invests in too much of what had become the usual Schwarzenegger spectacle of offing villains in wildly spectacular fashion following by a cutting, tongue-in-cheek pun. In fact, I could make a case that the picture could’ve been strengthened by not having the Muscles from Brussels in it entirely, giving some other leading man from the day a chance in the limelight.