Junkfood Cinema: The Running Man

By  · Published on March 5th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema: voted #1. Every week I force-feed you hot spoon-fulls of hot garbage from my personal celluloid landfill. These stinkers may have fallen short of technically proficient from the time their scripts were greenlit, but they nevertheless occupy a special, greasy part of my heart. To make matters worse, my specialty as it turns out, I also provide a themed suggestion as to the tastebud-pleasing, artery-clogging snack item you should be cramming into your gullet as you watch the flick. If you are anything like me, you poor bastard, then you giggle with glee when you ponder the greatest decade on the timeline of world history: the 1980’s. Some of the absolute worst/best films of all time cast their hour upon the screen between 1980 and 1989; there’s a reason why 40% of the entries in this column boast that glorious chronological distinction. Today’s film is not for the faint of heart, but rather reserved for true juggernauts of crap. Today’s film…is The Running Man.

The Running Man takes place in the distant future of…seven years from now. The United States has essentially become a police state with the government, at every level, devolving into a host of permanent bedfellows of privatized industry. The Constitution is abandoned and basic freedoms are cast aside in the name of order. In an effort to placate the masses, a series of ultra-violent game shows have been instituted; the most popular of which is being The Running Man. This despicable contest pits prisoners against maniacal mercenaries in a last-man-standing display of brutality. If the competitor makes it to a certain point, after a certain period of time, they are granted their freedom. Most of them don’t make it past the first round and end up as casualties of the almighty Nielsen rating system. Enter into the fray, Ben Richards, a former air force pilot who refused to murder a crowd of non-violent protesters and then, after being relieved of command in that operation, was framed for their murder that was carried out by his successor. Through further twists of fate and immeasurable bad luck, Richards ends up as the next contestant on The Running Man. Does he have what it takes to survive? Will he be this week’s corpse? Is that the dude from The Family Feud?

What Makes It Bad?

First off, this is a Schwarzenegger vehicle. If you are unfamiliar with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he is one of the greatest actors of his or any generation. His auteur, introspective performance skills are dwarfed only by his total mastery of the English language. And if you are unfamiliar with me, I am a chronic liar. Arnold’s meteoric rise in the 80’s is indicative of both his beef-headed charm and that decade’s obsession with like-jawed piles of muscle. Seriously, large quantities of meat could be expertly sliced on his jawline. For all his innumerable faults as an actor, I love Arnold. It has always been clear to me that Arnie consistently puts forth an absurd amount of effort regardless of the project and he is incredibly fun to watch. That being said, I think he should only ever be in action films; he and comedy go together like oil and…people allergic to oil. But I’ll be damned if he’s not good at punching, delivering one-liners, and running (as it were).

Speaking of, I don’t want to say this is where Arnold’s quips were born, but it is very clearly where they came to die. The Running Man is just about the punniest film ever made. I wish I could adequately describe just how terrible these lines are; fairly sure they were written on a dare. Allow me to paint a picture for you. You are running for your life from a rather large, wholly homicidal man wielding a razor-lined hockey stick. You manage to evade the thrash of his weapon and wrap about a yard of barbed wire around his neck. As he lies dying, both from asphyxiation and the loss of blood from his torn-open jugular, you must decide how to appropriately respond. Most of us would stand shaken, aware that we had taken a life in the more heinous of fashions. I would estimate that another large portion of us would simply not be able to deal with it and run silently, furiously away from the scene. Schwarzenegger, while jogging comfortably away, turns to his compatriots and says, “what a pain in the neck.” This round clearly goes to Arnie. They even insert taglines from his other, more wildly successful films into this one. I wish I was exaggerating, but at one point, just as he’s about to be jettisoned into the playing field, he turns to Richard Dawson and says “I’ll be back,” completely straight-faced. Wow! Really shows how confident the director/writer was that this film had the ability to stand on its own strength.

The concept itself isn’t bad, but does demonstrate a glaring fallacy of dystopian films. No matter how well you prod the deeper social and ethical ramifications of how our faults as human beings may one day subvert all that we hold sacred, films like this always succeed in immediately and irreversibly dating themselves. What do I mean? Well in the 80’s version of a dark future, which from their vantage point is 30 years removed from the release date, people still listen to music on cassette tape. Yup. This is either an instance of extreme shortsightedness or a rather strange form of arrogance; surely no one will ever be able to improve upon the perfect achievement that is the cassette tape. Also, moratorium on jumpsuits being the trademark of future fashion, people . I’m not just talking about alternative future movies from the 80’s either, but it doesn’t help that Arnold looks like a roided-up Twinkie with his bits on display.

The problems don’t stop there. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “it’s been far too long since I’ve seen Jesse Ventura in spandex sporting a Backstreet Boys haircut,” then The Running Man is a God send. Personally, I’ll stick to calling this scene nightmarish and life-altering. There’s also the fact that the film tries to shell out a great deal of exposition on a shoestring budget that doesn’t work out too well. The shocking opening therefore looks as though Ben Richards is making a moral stand against slaughtering a crowd of…amorphous, 8-bit spots. “There are unarmed civilians down there,” he grumbles. But it’s hard to buy him as a hero when he heroically saves a gathering of Lite Bright pieces. Also, I like Richard Dawson, but his role in this makes me sad. Never have I seen so bold a piece of stunt casting as the casting of game show host as a game show host. What’s the matter Running Man, Bob Barker not available?

Why I Love It!

The aforementioned concept is not only interesting but also damned familiar. A futuristic society where the government has anesthetized the masses with violent entertainment and meanwhile eradicated human rights and decency? Sound familiar to anyone yet? How about it being headlined by a charismatic, over-the-top host and the existence of a resistance group trying to shut down the event for good? Ok fine, replace the last-man-standing kill fest with a kill-or-be-killed road race. There you go! The Running Man is essentially Deathrace 2000 for the producer who can’t afford cars. I am a rabid fan of Deathrace 2000 and I relish any opportunity to see its central idea crossbred with something like The Most Dangerous Game. I can only imagine that Richard Bachmann, the writer of the story on which the film is based, has to be a fan of one or both of those films. Man, someone should introduce that Bachmann guy to Steven King; their writing styles are remarkably similar. Wait, you don’t think…nah! I also liked the idea of every branch of the government being inextricably connected to show business; the justice department having an entertainment division and the President having an agent.

The best reason I can think of to watch The Running Man is the cavalcade of stalkers who pursue our contestants with deadly intent. These guys resemble a line of the most insane, macho action figures come to life. Seriously, I half expected the audience to have to remove them from their plastic/cardboard packaging before each scene. They have names and gimmicks that would make Vince McMahon very happy. We have Buzzsaw, a brutish slab of bulk brandishing a chainsaw. Then we have Fireball, a pyromaniac played by the incomparable Jim Brown (another of my blaxploitation heroes). He’s as badass as ever, despite the fact that he clearly took his hair style advice from the extremely gay character from Mannequin. We also have Sub-Zero, an Asian hockey player with a sharpened stick and enough mass to qualify him as a small moon. Because seriously, if there is one sport with which I associate Asians, it’s hockey! And finally there’s Dynamo. Ok, bear with me here, Dynamo is an immensely fat (theme here) opera singer covered in Christmas tree lights who has harnessed the power of electricity and wields it with lethal accuracy. If anything I just said makes you want to see this movie, you are officially invited to my G.I. Joe-themed birthday party. This kind of reckless character construction is tantamount to the genius of the 80’s; if they couldn’t be good, they would make bad fantastic. It was like Arnold had to systematically take down bosses from the various levels of Mega Man.

As campy and silly as it is, my God is The Running Man violent. Sure it’s goofy and full of one-liners, but when push comes to shove, the film can really kick some ass. I mentioned it previously, but the scene where Arnold dispatches Sub-Zero is decidedly nasty, and very cool (oh no, the puns are contagious). If that’s not enough for you, you can always fall back on the loudest castration ever captured on film. Just when it looks like Buzzsaw has Arnold’s number, he turns the tables and introduces the whirring blades to the man’s genitals. Ouch and a half! There’s also an amazing head-exploding scene that is both entertaining and exceedingly well done as far as effects are concerned; best part being that the headless corpse gets a few more paces in before collapsing. And though he never follows through on his vicious threat, I would have loved to have witnessed Arnold ramming his fist into Richard Dawson’s stomach and breaking his goddamned spine.

There are a lot of minutia things to love about The Running Man. First of all, there are a few background, satirical nudges that would also make Robocop (released the same year) so indelible. There are promos for shows like Climbing for Cash, wherein a man grabs money as he climbs away from hungry rottweilers, as well as posters for shows like The Hate Boat. I also loved the references to the fascist kids’ club that promises its young members double points for turning in members of their own families. Also, this is the third Junkfood Cinema film to feature Yaphet Kotto (go figure) and he is just as disproportionately good in this as he was in Truck Turner and Eye of the Tiger. Or how about the fact that they found a co-star for Arnold who is even more unintelligible than he is? Seriously, Maria Conchita Alonso may be serious eye-candy, but I can’t understand a bleeding word she says.

Junkfood Pairing: Jawbreaker.

Turns out Schwarzenegger isn’t the only one with a pronounced mandible. The Running Man is jam-packed with razor-sharp jawlines. So it only makes sense that you should slowly enjoy this methodically delicious treat as you watch the parade of chin-straps, I mean actors strut across the screen. Jawbreakers are also colorful and fantastically absurd; much like the film. This pairing has the added bonus of being impossible to swallow, much like the puns that find their way out of Arnie’s enormous face.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.