Before The Hunger Games, before Battle Royale, there was another movie based on a book about a dystopian future where an evil government distracts the masses with a popular series of gladiatorial deathmatches. Runners, are you ready for... The Running Man?
Editor’s Note: This article originally ran on 6/20/2014. We’re bumping it up because damn it, I spent forever doing screencaps for it and I want more people to read it. Also because The Running Man is as ridiculous and entertaining today as it was two and a half years ago. - Kirk
(Update 2: Bumping it up again because this movie still owns.)
It was 1987, and some Hollywood producers decided hey, what better time to take a moderately well-regarded King/Bachman novel and totally change the entire thing, turn it into an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle, and generally make everything five million times more eighties? What better time, indeed.
Earlier this week my girlfriend and I were trawling Netflix in search of something to watch, and we saw that The Running Man had joined the Netflix lineup. She told me she had never actually seen the movie. Well, I thought. That settles that.
And so I fired up this movie, one that I’d watched so many times on VHS as a kid, for the first time in more than ten years. So many years later, I was excited to see how far my memories of the film lay from reality.
The next hour and forty minutes was an adventure. And today, thanks to the wonders of screenshot keyboard shortcuts, you can relive that adventure with me. I’ll say up front that this article turned out to be a lot more involved than I’d expected going in, but much like The Running Man itself, if you just go with it we’ll all probably have a good time in the end.
Here we go.
The title screen is already pretty great, with the crusty “graphics” look on the font designed to imply like, that things are computerized? That it’s the future? I don’t know, I feel like someone threw that title sequence together in half an hour.
The opening lore-scrawl is also pretty good, at least partly because its coloring makes it look like a VHS FBI warning. Also of note: This apparently all happens within the next three years. Look out for paramilitary zones and iron hands!
We meet Arnold “Ben Richards” Schwarzenegger as pilots a cop helicopter over a crowd of protesters in LA.
Much like Batman’s detective vision, Ben’s futurecopter can detect that there are no weapons in the crowd. (No weapons in a crowd of 1,500 Angelenos? If you say so, movie...)
Ben gets the order to kill everyone, and he says he’s not into it, and a fight breaks out in the cockpit. He’s almost knocked from the aircraft, and we get the first of this movie’s many, many excellent “Arnold Schwarzenegger flails like a goon” shots:
So Ben gets arrested and then winds up in this weird futuristic work camp outside of LA where the guards all wear respirators.
I guess they do that just to look scarier? But maybe the air is also polluted.
We get our first shot of sweaty Ben after a bunch of time has passed. He’s carrying a massive girder, and this is just PEAK SCHWARZENEGGER right here, dude is rocking some straight-up arm-boulders. This is as good a time as any to reflect on the fact that this man would go on to become governor of one of the most powerful states in the U.S.A.
We then learn that this movie features not one but two musicians, and they’re even billed together, like a really odd bill at the House of Blues. Mick Fleetwood will be playing the role of the resistance leader, and Dweezil Zappa will be playing Stevie, a guy in a beret that we’ll meet in a little bit.
Speaking of music...
The music for The Running Man was composed by Harold “Axel F” Faltermeyer, which I did not remember at all but which makes TOTAL SENSE. Suffice to say, the music for The Running Man is super great.
Man, I wish Harold Faltermeyer would do music for every movie.
Anyway there’s this perimeter fence set up that keys to all the prisoners’ neck-bands and if it’s armed, it’ll blow them up. Which is a good way to keep people in a worksite, I guess, except that when the guard enters the code to turn the fence off it doesn’t ***** out the numbers because in 1987 no one had even thought of that concept yet.
So the guard enters the code and it’s super obvious what the code is so a nerdy guy named Harold played by classic 80s Hey It’s That Guy! Marvin J. McIntyre sees it and memorizes it. Then Ben and his friend William, played by Yaphet “Lt. Giardello” Koto, pretend to fight, a riot breaks out, and a prison break gets underway.
It’s really all a distraction so that Harold can disarm the head-exploding fence, though.
Harold thinks that he’s entered the code, but he hasn’t really. And then the best scene ever happens, when this guy Chico makes a run for it...
...and everyone’s like “Chicooooo!” “Noooo!”
“Nooooo!” “Stop, Chicooo!”
...because the perimeter is still armed, but then of course Chico runs past the perimeter anyway because they had to show the viewers what happens when someone tries to run through the perimeter.
Well, this is what happens:
Aw man, sucks about Chico. It seemed like everyone liked him.
Anyway, then Harold gets the perimeter actually shut down (just in time, bud) and he and Ben and William all make their escape. And we get this amazing shot of the 2017 Los Angeles skyline:
The city has a monorail, and lots of searchlights! Fade up on this shantytown that really reminds me of the shantytown in They Live, where everyone is watching the hottest TV show on the air, The Running Man:
And everything is dire, and the world is fucked, and of course television is somehow to blame, etc. It’s all very “The future as imagined in 1987,” which is a running theme throughout The Running Man and it’s something that I really like.
And you see the host for the first time, and he runs this hype reel of the show...
but then you realize about halfway through when you see this:
...that, hey, wait a minute, this hype reel is footage from the movie we’re about to watch! That’s Ben and Amber dodging Dynamo’s car, and then later we see Buzzsaw riding his motorcycle at Ben! Is this video...from the future?? Or maybe they just snuck that footage in because they didn’t want to shoot new stunts just for a clip reel...either way, this is some “Watching Spaceballs in Spaceballs” action right here.
Our threesome makes their way through the shantytown and then they run into this classy gentleman:
His name is “Stevie” and he’s played by Dweezil Zappa, and he is a RESISTANCE FIGHTER which you can tell because of his studded leather jacket, his cool pins, and his beret.
Then there’s this whole scene where Mick Fleetwood deactivates their bomb-collars and we learn that the TV has LIED and told everyone that Ben actually killed everyone in that crowd, instead of being the one guy to say he wouldn’t do it.
It’s all kinda weird, since, why did the government decide to kill everyone in the crowd anyway? If they just do that kind of stuff regardless, why do they need a scapegoat? Anyway.
We get a pretty badass shot of Ben lighting a match for his cigar, because he is a badass who DGAF. Then he’s outta there, to go find his brother and get out of LA.
Cut to the ICS building (that’s the evil all-powerful network that airs The Running Man) where we first meet The Running Man host Damon Killian as he’s greeted by adoring fans outside the building.
And this janitor bumps into him, and Killian is super nice to his face but then afterward tells his bodyguard to have the guy fired, instantly establishing him as a prototypical Suit-Wearing Corporate 80s Villain. “Killian” almost rhymes with “Villain,” when you think about it.
So Ben turns up at the ICS building as well, dressed up as a member of The Village People:
I don’t even know where to begin with this, so maybe I should just leave it, but I love the idea that 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger could ever go incognito, ever, anywhere, but that if he tried he’d do it by dressing up as a Sexy Construction Worker.
He gets into his brother’s apartment and isn’t there long before this lady played by the lovely Maria Conchita Alonso shows up and starts working out in her négligée.
Jesse Ventura, rocking a full head of hair, is the star of the workout video, which appears to sort of just involve him prancing around while a bunch of dancers in leotards do spins in the background:
One time he turns up on the screen and he’s UPSIDE DOWN
What is even going on? Oh, right. So she’s working out in her underwear, like you do:
And then just after seeing a news report about evil Ben Richards’ escape, she looks up and speak of the devil!
Now, given how weird and uncomfortable this movie gets later on, this whole “Giant guy in underpants pinning down hot girl in HER underpants” thing isn’t all that gross here. It’s weird, and like they can’t figure out whether to play it for laughs or not? Anyway, she tells Ben she got the apartment after his brother was sent off for re-education, Ben tries to tell her he’s innocent, she doesn’t believe it, she tries to run, he ties her up.
Ben goes through her stuff and finds that she has some bootleg cassette tapes, which is so excellent, because it’s so totally 80s to imagine that in the year 2017 people will still be using cassette tapes, and he also learns that the woman’s name is Amber and that she’s a singer/composer who writes music for the network. (I think we learn her name here? Anyway, her name is Amber Mendez.)
The whole thing is intercut with these scenes of Killian seeing Ben’s escape on the news and deciding that he Must Have Him on the show, since The Running Man’s ratings have plateaued and they need a new star.
We meet Killian’s assistant Lenny, played by Classic 80s/90s Asshole character-actor Kurt Fuller.
Killian gets on the phone and talks with his pinkie stretched out, so we know he’s a real fancy jerk, or something. He says that they’re gonna get Ben to be on the show, and we all know it’ll happen, and basically this whole part of the movie is boring foreplay and they need to get on with it.
So then Ben takes Amber to the airport to try to hop a flight to Hawaii, and I have to say that this is a really ill-advised scheme.
I mean I guess his thinking was that by having a woman go with him, he’d stick out less, but once again HE IS ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER and also he’s got his hand on her neck like he’s about to strangle her. Which he in fact threatens to do. This seems like a shitty plan, is what I’m saying. So of course, after a few minutes she punches him in the nuts and runs away screaming, the cops spot him, he makes a run for it, and this happens:
Net-gun! I remember when I was a kid I thought the net-gun was really cool, and wondered if policemen really kept that kind of thing lying around. Probably not? Anyway, it’s so cool.
Ben gets thrown into a cell where he has a face-to-face with Killian, who offers him a spot on the show. Ben tells Killian to fuck himself, so Killian says he’ll send William and Harold on the show if Ben won’t do it, so of course Ben agrees.
We then get this weird scene where they strip Ben to his underpants and put these plastic blocks in his teeth to block his jaw and then give him like, two shots, which don’t seem too bad. All that for two little shots?
But it does give us the AMAZING official Netflix background still for the movie. Behold:
Yes. That is how Netflix advertises this movie. A+, guys.
In that photo it looks like they’re just torturing the fuck out Ben or something but seriously, they’re just giving him that one shot in the shoulder. Maybe it was full of acid or something, I don’t know. What I DO know is that the doctor in this scene is a picture-perfect 80s Handsome Asshole archetype:
Look at this piece of work, he even lights up a cigarette once Ben has been prepped for the show.
Though again I ask, what were they even doing? Putting a tracking device in him? It isn’t clear, and it never really comes up again in the movie. Oh well, whatever. They gas Ben to sleep and it’s time for the show to begin.
OH WAIT before that Amber watches a newscast about Ben getting captured and they make up all this stuff about how he killed all these people at the airport and she’s like “Wait, you mean maybe our evil corporate overlords are lying to us?”
And then this ad for a show called Climbing For Dollars comes on and it involves a guy climbing a rope putting money in his teeth while angry dogs try to kill him, and it looks SO GOOD that I sort of wish they’d made this movie about that show instead of The Running Man:
Anyway I’m starting to realize that if I don’t move things along this article will be even way longer than it already has been so let’s get this show on the road.
The Running Man is underway, and we get all these intercut scenes of Killian getting prepped, and gladiator “stalkers” like Buzzsaw showing up. Buzzsaw is all ‘roided out and he lifts his motorcycle above his head for the fans:
...and the crowd is just Going Wild, which is a running theme in this movie, just shot after shot of people going apeshit for this corny show, because it’s the best thing going in their sad shitty lives:
Like on the TV there are just these dancers dancing, right?
But then we cut to this lady in a bar straight losing her shit over how exciting it all is:
Anyway there’s this weird scene where Ben walks past Amber and her friend (remember Amber works at ICS) and her friend seems weirdly turned on by the idea that Ben could’ve raped Amber but didn’t.
Which Amber takes to mean that hey, maybe Ben really isn’t a bad guy. She begs off their plans and goes to do some investigating.
Killian brings Ben out and they put him in this weird car thing, and then Killian tells him that he’d hate to send him in alone, so instead he’s sending in William and Harold with him! Oh, that asshole!
They look really uncomfortable because they’re sitting in their sleds vertically, while Ben gets to sit horizontally. Anyway, Killian gets ready to launch Ben into the tournament zone and the grandmas are just going nuts for it:
And Ben says “Hey, Killian!”
“I’ll be back.”
And, awesomely, Killian is sort of just nonplussed and doesn’t quite know what to say, until he finds his composure and says “Only in a rerun.” Zing?
They blast all three guys through the tubes and then there’s this super long sequence where they keep showing everyone blasting through tubes on sleds, since clearly someone who worked on the movie invested a lot of time in making the tube sequence, even though it goes on forever and is weird and jarring.
And then they’re in the game, and we’re off! There are these motorcycle dudes who are in there for some reason (?) and they get the three runners going toward the first arena. I took a screenshot of this guy because he gives them a really intense look:
Meanwhile Killian picks this lady out of the audience and has her pick a stalker to kill the three contestants. She picks... Subzero!
Who was not yet a Mortal Kombat character, and in 1987 was instead a big hockey player dude with a bladed hockey stick.
The three guys find themselves closed into this arena covered in ice,
which of course means that Subzero is about to turn up in full hockey player regalia and start knocking them around.
There’s a fight, it’s pretty cheesy, and no one really gets hurt. Here I find myself wondering what would’ve happened if Chico hadn’t run ahead and gotten blown up. Would he be here, too? Would he be helping fight Subzero, swapping jokes with the guys? Oh, Chico. All the things that might’ve been.
Anyway at one point Sub launches this explosive hockey puck (!) that knocks Ben out. But he doesn’t manage to kill anyone before Ben pulls down some barbed wire and clotheslines him on it.
And so dies Subzero:
And everyone is super stunned, since I guess this has never happened before:
Awwww, poor Subzero.
And Ben gets his first of several nonsensical one-liners when he says “Hey, Killian! Here is Subzero. Now PLAIN zero.”
Killian assures some guy on the phone that things will be handled, and that this’ll be great ratings, and that the next stalker will kill Ben and friends. So then he gets this indecisive audience member:
...who can’t make up his mind whether he wants Dynamo or Buzzsaw. He can’t choose! Well, he doesn’t have to, Killian says. He gets both! (Given that the audience members get prizes for how well the stalkers do, that doesn’t really seem fair, does it? Oh well, I guess ICS is evil so whatever.)
First we re-meet Buzzsaw, who is played by Gus Rethwisch and is THE BEST and makes THE BEST FACES:
And then we meet Dynamo, who is played by Erland van Lidth and is just THE WORST and he demonstrates that by singing opera while dressed as a ridiculous christmas tree and shooting electricity from his hands.
The thing he shoots says CLAP IF YOU LOVE DYNAMO and everyone claps even though seriously, who the fuck could love Dynamo, I mean come on. I feel sort of like people just saw that it said “CLAP IF YOU LOVE” and they started clapping because that is a kind of beautiful sentiment, then “DYNAMO” popped up and they were already clapping and didn’t stop because it’d be awkward.
Also I forgot to mention this but Amber went and investigated what really happened during Ben’s fateful helicopter ride and got herself caught, so they make up a bunch of hilarious lies about her (She cheated on her college exams and slept with two or even three men in a year!), put her in a jumpsuit and fire her off down the tubes into the game. Because reasons!
So she runs into Ben, Harold and William right as Dynamo and Buzzsaw are entering the arena.
Buzzsaw rides a motorcycle, and Dynamo drives this terrible shitty little car that is so much worse even than what I would’ve imagined for him, it’s really perfect.
This guy is way more psyched about Buzzsaw and Dynamo than I am, continuing this movie’s habit of showing gleeful audience members being kind of too excited for whatever non-exciting thing is happening on screen. I mean okay, I’m a little psyched for Buzzsaw, but I’m still not as psyched as Mustache up there is.
So Dynamo and Buzzsaw set after our heroes, and before long they’re split up. Ben and William are taking on Buzzsaw while Amber and Harold have made a run for the uplink station. (Oh yeah, Harold has been tracking uplink stations to try to hack into the network and bring it down, because that would probably do something to someone and help save the world in some way...well it probably wouldn’t, anyway, go with it.)
Buzzsaw comes at Ben and keeps swinging his saws from his motorcycle, which seems like a pretty shitty way to kill people, but he misses but eventually wounds William.
Sorry you can’t see Buzzsaw in these screenshots, just use your imagination. Then Buzzsaw throws this bolo around Ben’s waist:
and drags him around...
and makes this face:
...and the whole time the indecisive audience member is getting showered with prizes...
...which, again, not fair. But then Ben manages to knock Buzzsaw off of his motorcycle..
...and we cut to Harold and Amber, who are hacking into the uplink.
Harold is able to hack in despite the fancy tech locking it down:
It’s a Hexagonal Decode System! Dude must be a genius.
But of course, just after he says the code out loud so Amber can memorize it, stupid Dynamo shows up and kills him with a bolt of stupid electricity.
Meanwhile, Ben examines Buzzsaw’s post-crash body and finds that he’s not dead at all, and pretty soon they’re grappling and fighting over Buzzsaw’s saw.
It’s at this point that my girlfriend says “I’m sensing that this is a ‘Live by the chainsaw, die by the chainsaw’ kind of deal.” She’s not wrong. But first, Buzzsaw and Ben have a competition to see who can make a better pooping face:
...aaaand so ends Buzzsaw.
Meanwhile Dynamo has chased Amber down and Ben comes running to her rescue, distracting Dynamo from...whatever he was doing... and getting him to chase him in his shitty little car.
It’s a really slow and boring chase, and Dynamo’s car looks so dumb:
But THEN, in the best turn of events ever, Dynamo’s car turns out to be so shitty that he tries to drive it up a hill after Ben and can’t make it, so it flips over a bunch of times and pins him. What a fitting way to go out!
Dynamo’s trapped in the car with no power shouting “Cut to commercial!” but Ben won’t kill him, because he is a Good Man and that’s not what Good Men do. Instead, he and Amber flee the scene.
She tells him that Harold didn’t make it, and they head back to where Ben left William, only to find that Buzzsaw’s saw did more damage than we’d originally thought. William totally dies, telling Ben to head for the uplink, use the code Amber memorized, and shut the network down, else their deaths would be in vain. Hopefully no one in the TV studio was watching that, or they’d know the good guys’ whole plan...
Killian is obviously starting to get worried, and he appears to Ben in a private broadcast to offer him a job as a stalker. Ben refuses, obviously. So next up comes Fireball, played by the one and only Jim Brown, who despite being a professional athelete-turned-film actor is somehow waaaay too dignified for this movie.
Fireball has a flamethrower and a jetpack, and moves as slowly and awkwardly as every other stalker on this dumb TV show.
This old grandma gets to choose who she thinks will get the next kill, and you’re not going to believe this, but she chooses Ben Richards! Which is against the rules, but whatever, she doesn’t care, she’s old!
“Swearing grandma” trope notwithstanding, this is actually a moment I really like—the moment when the tides turn and the audience finally figures out that the hero is actually pretty rad and worth rooting for. It’s basically a way less emotionally charged version of the time the people in Rue’s district hold up their fingers to Katniss and start a riot, like, the idea that the people out there are seeing what you’re going through and have begun pulling for you. I like this lady.
And soon the people in the slums betting pools are putting bets on Ben too, and before you know it he’s in the running with 100-1 odds.
So then Fireball turns up in the zone and starts chasing Ben and Amber and it’s totally dumb and not scary but the camera keeps cutting to him running
and then them running
and then him running
and then their feet
and eventually they get split up and Amber winds up in a room with the dead bodies of the previous years’ “winners,” who obviously didn’t win anything at all.
And Fireball finds her and is about to kill her but at the last minute Ben pulls the hose out of his flamethrower and knocks him down, because Fireball is a big clumsy idiot and in no way all that threatening.
And then Ben says “Need a light?” and throws a flare on Fireball, which causes him to explode and die.
Bye, Fireball! You were kind of the worst stalker of all, maybe even worse than Subzero!
After this, Jesse Ventura gets a super undignified scene where his ex-stalker TV host/workout coach character comes into the TV operations room and yells at Killian about how this is garbage, and how he really wants to go fight like a gladiator. And the whole time he’s wearing this:
...which certainly does suggest that in his heyday, his stalker persona “Captain Freedom” was probably even dorkier than Fireball. It’s not clear quite what’s going on, but Killian kicks Captain Freedom out of the room.
Ben and Amber run some more, but then they get captured again!
But captured by whom? We’ll find out, but first..
The Running Man Dancers take the stage to do a weird funeral dance for the fallen stalkers, while this pre-recorded tribute to those dudes’ awesomeness and patriotism plays.
While their sexy dance is happening, Kurt Fuller is Kurt Fullerin’ it up, making a fake video showing Captain Freedom killing Ben when that actually hasn’t happened at all:
We meet Ben and Amber’s new captor, who is none other than resistance leader Mick Fleetwood.
Hey again, Mick! Meanwhile the public is shown this faked up video where Captain Freedom kills Amber and Ben and it’s pretty good, first he breaks Amber’s neck and does this:
and then he rams fake-Ben onto some spikes:
And I think maybe that’s the best image from this entire movie, though I’m not sure. If I were Arnold Schwarzenegger I’d print that out and mount it in my dining room.
Okay, deep breaths. The movie is almost over. We’ve made it pretty far! Let’s see this through.
Mick Fleetwood tells Ben that they’re going to take over the station to buy time while another team shuts down the signal, which will keep the station off the air long enough for...something...to happen...uh, it’s not clear. Anyway Ben says that these men need a leader, because Dweezil Zappa isn’t enough. They need...
...Ben Effin Richards, baby! And I’ll pause here to note that “Ben Richards” is super not the sort of name that most 80s Schwarzenegger characters have—”Dutch,” “Kalidor,” “John Matrix”—because it was the name of the guy from the book. “Ben” just kinda doesn’t fit here. But hey, we’ve gone with it this far. Ben to the rescue!
Ben leads his team on a strike on the studio while the show does its post-game, and the other good guys hack into the network relay to shut it down, and the Running Man Dancers do a victory dance:
And then the good guys hack into the signal and put on this outstanding video that says, in no uncertain terms:
And it shows the dead victors, and it shows what really happened when Ben tried to stop the massacre that got him arrested, and the whole time I’m wondering how ICS is somehow the same thing as the government, and what the government even looks like, and what any of this will have to do with anything remotely resembling reform or change.
But the guys in the control room seem worried about the video, and they’re about to go to a different satellite and change the feed when who should show up but...
Stevie and his beret! Thanks, Stevie, I knew you’d be helpful eventually.
Meanwhile Ben storms the studio and stops Killian cold by saying “I told you I’d be back!” And Killian still doesn’t really seem to get it, like, I guess he hasn’t seen The Terminator, and then shooting breaks out.
Meanwhile backstage, Amber is sneaking around with her futuregun...
...when who should show up...
He knocks her to the floor and then you start to get this weird feeling like they’re going to do a rape scene, and you start super hoping that that’s not going to happen...
Amber is clearly hoping that too, and you’re wracking your memory to remember if that happens in this movie that you watched when you were 12, and then he’s on top of her and you’re super duper wishing that none of this was happening...
...and, oh god...
...and then Amber shoots the fire safety faucets in the ceiling and electrocutes Dynamo...
...and the scene ends and we can all just briefly meditate on the fact that wow, that was a shitty scene that didn’t really need to be in this movie.
I think Amber agrees.
Meanwhile Ben is leading the attack in the studio, and definitely not getting almost-raped, and in fact is doing the thing everyone does in this movie where they shoot assault rifles from chest-level without looking down the barrel or anything. The bad guys do it too:
How can they hope to fire with any accuracy? Anyway, soon the bad guys are all dead, and it’s just Ben and Killian.
They have their standoff, which is being aired live to everyone at home, including this displeased lady:
Killian hems and haws and tries to talk his way out of this:
and tries to bring in his scary security guard to take Ben down...
...but even his bodyguard won’t help him, because Killian made a crack about the dude using steroids earlier in the movie (sorry I forgot to mention that part) and the guy is basically like, “You’re a prick, whatever, I’m out.”
So, Ben grabs Killian and locks him into another of those speed-sleds from the beginning, and gets him ready to launch.
Just before he launches, Killian looks at him and super earnestly says, “Drop dead!”
I’m not kidding, he actually says “Drop dead!”
And so Ben responds with a pithy “I don’t do requests.” (What is the frame of reference for this quip?) He fires Killian into the tubes. Time for yet another big tube sequence!
but this time there’s no net to catch Killian’s sled (maybe Ben knew that somehow?) so Killian launches straight out and into a big billboard of himself endorsing Cadre Cola...