The Best Movie You Never Saw: Runaway

We look back at the obscure 1984 Tom Selleck sci-fi flick, Runaway, directed by writer Michael Crichton and co-starring Gene Simmons.

Last Updated on April 3, 2024

THE STORY: It is the future (like say – 1989). Robots are now commonplace, being used for everything from manual labor to childcare. But, robots go bad and when they do, the LAPD calls in Sgt. Jack R. Ramsay (Tom Selleck), an expert in so-called “Runaways”. When a madman (Gene Simmons) invents a microchip that turns all robots into runaways, Ramsay, and his new partner (Cynthia Rhodes) must put a stop to his evil plan – the fate of the world just may depend on it! Oh, and also Ramsay is afraid of heights. Trust me, that’s important.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Tom Selleck, Cynthia Rhodes, Kirstie Alley, G. W. Bailey and Gene Simmons. Written and directed by Michael Crichton.

runaway tom selleck

THE HISTORY: While most famous for his novels, Michael Crichton actually had a decent Hollywood career as a director, having a couple of solid hits under his belt (Westworld, Coma, The Great Train Robbery) by the time 1984 rolled around. At the time, Tom Selleck was riding high on the success of “Magnum P.I.” but was bent on breaking into films after landing the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but being forced to drop it due to his Magnum contract. Thus, in ‘83/84, we got a slew of Tom Selleck vehicles, High Road to China (a better-than-average Indiana Jones clone), Lassiter (not bad – not nearly enough action), and Runaway.

Jack Ramsay is not exactly a character whose name is on the tip of everybody’s tongue, but Runaway was a really great popcorn movie that Michael Crichton wrote and directed. It was very futuristic, it had robots and all sorts of stuff, and it was a nice movie. It was a good movie that I’m very proud of. It didn’t do very well, which was a great disappointment to Michael, who became a friend. And Gene Simmons was in it! Gene hadn’t been in a feature film before, but he was great. We had some great talks and good times. He played this evil guy named Luther who’d invented bullets that could go around corners and hone in on people, and he had robot spiders that could attack people and inject them with poison. I know it sounds hokey, but with Michael Crichton at the helm, it was pretty good stuff. – Tom Selleck- A.V. Club Interview 

Sadly for Selleck, none of the movies did particularly well at the box office, with Runaway doing just awful, opening in seventh place at the box office and being beaten by notorious bombs The Cotton Club and Dune. In the end, the film eked out a disastrous $6.7 Million at the box office and temporarily ended Selleck’s big screen career (although three years later, his Three Men and a Baby would become the biggest film of 1987). Crichton’s career as a director also took a hit, with him only helming one bad Burt Reynolds vehicle, Physical Evidence, in 1989, before turning his attention back to the page so he could write a crazy-sounding book about a dinosaur amusement park.

WHY IT’S GREAT: Ok, so “Best movie” might be a little too generous for Runaway, but as a kid growing up in the late eighties/ early nineties, Runaway was a favorite. It’s easy to look back at it now and laugh at the hilariously low-tech robots (a shot of Selleck’s robot nanny making pasta is especially bad), but this is still a fun sci-fi actioner. In fact, those of you who might be younger but super into eighties retro stuff like Kung Fury might get a real kick out of the unapologetically silly (made better by the fact that it tries to be so serious) flick.

runaway gene Simmons

There are a lot of things to like about Runaway, chief of which is Tom Selleck’s straight-laced performance. Say what you will about the guy, but he wanted to be a movie star, so he delivers in Runaway, even if I suspect he knew deep down there was no way this would really work. It’s kinda strange seeing him waltz around a futuristic L.A. Maybe copying Harrison Ford’s career so closely was a bad plan – as I’m sure him playing a futuristic L.A cop had more than a little to do with Blade Runner. Selleck really came into his own when he was more laid-back and likable, like on “Magnum P.I” and his latter-movies (Quigley Down Under is especially solid), so it’s weird to see him so serious here, but it works.

It’s also worth noting in this MeToo era that he’s among the most gentlemanly heroes of the eighties, treating his female partner with respect (they become an item but she makes all the moves), being ultra-professional with a female suspect he has to search (the late Kirstie Alley in an early role), and never indulging in the casual sexism you might expect given the era and genre. I’m not trying to be overtly P.C as these movies are a product of their time, but it’s a nice, forward-thinking touch.

runaway kirstie alley
Likewise, Cynthia Rhodes makes for a likable heroine/love interest, and it’s a shame she essentially retired from films after this, while Gene Simmons camps it up in a hilariously over-the-top performance as the big bad. While the movie was a flop, Simmons went on a solid run of playing bad guys, following it up with Wanted: Dead or Alive (another underrated action flick – with one of the best bad guy death scenes), and the bug-nuts Never Too Young To Die (recently re-released by Shout Factory and available to watch for free on their streaming app). I also enjoyed seeing G.W. Bailey turn up as the angry police chief. He made a great career out of playing grumpy authority figures in this era (second only to James Tolkan), and I’m glad he’s still going strong thirty-plus years later. Also – any film with a score by Jerry Goldsmith gets an automatic recommendation, although it’s crazy synthy and dated.

BEST SCENE: The only thing people really remember about Runaway is the MacGuffin, and it’s a good one. Simmons’s baddie invents a heat-seeking bullet that chases Selleck around during the chase sequences, and the bullet POV shots are incredible, even if they seem to have eaten up the budget, with the animation for the bullets absent the entire third act.

SEE IT: Runaway is available on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play, and also shows up on Crackle from time-to-time.

PARTING SHOT: Runaway is a silly slice of eighties cheese, but I’ve watched it many times over the years, and I always have a great time. It’s a pretty nostalgic flick for me, and a guaranteed good time for anyone interested in this era.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.