Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has us thinking back on other movies about dangerous games, deadly competitions, and blood sports.
The Running Man (1987)
It’d be silly to try to make the case that The Running Man is a great movie, but as a time-capsule look at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decade-long action-movie reign—roughly 1984 to 1994, from The Terminator to True Lies—it’s at the very least useful (not to mention ridiculous, campy fun). Based very, very loosely on the Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) novel of the same name, The Running Man is set in the dystopian near future of 2017. Innocent soldier Ben Richards, played by Schwarzenegger, refuses to slaughter innocent civilians and is sent to a work camp, before leading an escape. Naturally he's caught, only to be spotted by TV producer and host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson, in what could be considered the film’s only actual performance by a professional actor), who insists that Richards become a player on America’s favorite game show, The Running Man.
America, it seems, has collapsed economically. Its starving citizenry can only be satiated by bloodsports, and The Running Man fits the bill: The criminals are sent into a 400-block zone, where they’re hunted by “stalkers.” Few make it out alive, but those that do are promised by Killian “fabulous prizes: a trial by jury, a suspended sentence, maybe even a full pardon!” It’s one of The Running Man’s feeble attempts at social commentary, which hits a couple of major points over the head: the media is capable of lying to the public, the public has bloodlust, and the legal system is inoperably fucked. But mostly, once things get going, The Running Man just turns into a silly chase movie populated by baddies who look like B-level pro-wrestling villains. (One of them, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, was actually an A-level pro-wrestling villain, though his acting chops hadn’t been fully developed by 1987.)
Schwarzenegger was at peak quippiness at the time, so each baddie is dispatched not only with a violent death, but a one-liner, too: “Give you a lift?” he asks before tossing a guy to his death. “He had to split,” he remarks after a chainsaw-wielding stalker gets cut in two. And apparently the writers couldn’t decide which line would hurt Jim Brown’s feelings more after he’s burned to death, so they went with both “How about a light?” and “What a hothead.” When people mock Schwarzenegger, they’re mocking the Schwarzenegger of The Running Man (and Commando, but that’s another story). He dominated the box office with that shtick, until, like the audience in this movie that suddenly wakes up to reality, people started to realize what was happening and move on. Schwarzenegger smartly did the same, giving comedic roles a shot as his body got older. Still, pieces of The Running Man reverberate in everything from the plot of The Hunger Games to the over-the-top ridiculousness of Idiocracy.
Availability: The Running Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray (through Netflix disc delivery), for rental or purchase through the major digital services, and to stream for free (and in HD!) on YouTube.