The Running Man: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Stephen King Adaptation Is A Blast

INTRO: At the time of writing this episode of Arnie Revisited, it’s just been confirmed that Hollywood is once again scouring popular IP with the upcoming reboot of The Running Man from Edgar Wright, with rising star Glen Powell attached to the project. The Top Gun: Maverick actor is certainly hot property right now, having just cosied up to Sydney Sweeney in Anyone But You. However, it was another actor, whose star was crashing through the sky in the 80s, who first took on the adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, which was written under his Richard Bachman pen name.

Arnie had just battled camouflaged alien hunters in Predator, released in June 1987, and the same year saw him take on another action sci-fi project, albeit this time with less aliens but similarly memorable action and one-liners. It was quite a departure from the original short story, but the movie, set in a dystopian future, saw the Austrian Oak take on a reality TV show where criminals, also known as ‘runners’, must escape death at the hands of professional killers. Think Gladiators with gruesome death by chainsaw, rather than a tame sponge mallet blow, thrown in for good measure. Having just scored a massive hit with Predator, this kind of potentially risible action fare could have been a mess in the wrong hands, so could The Running Man continue Arnie’s winning streak with audiences and the all important box-office dollar, or would his hot streak come to a crashing halt? Well, don your favourite golden jumpsuit and get ready to kick some dystopian ass, here on Arnie Revisited!

SET-UP: As a young lad in the late 80s I spent my time doing the usual stuff. You know; skating around the streets of my hometown, Guns n’ Roses blasting on my waterproof yellow Sony Walkman, trying my best to do well at school and generally keeping out of trouble. All the while, my head was filled with whatever movie I’d persuaded my folks to let me stay up and watch, which meant that I had visions of sharks eating kids and aliens bursting through chests in my impressionable mind, plus a whole load of Arnie one-liners stored up, ready to be unloaded on my pals. The Running Man had been on my radar ever since me and my comrades had caught the trailer during a Saturday matinee of some shit we were barely old enough to get in to watch. Unfortunately though, when we eventually managed to acquire a copy of it, thanks to a very liberally minded video store owner (thanks Freddy!), it was long after its release both in cinemas and home entertainment. Watching the movie as just a young lad on a grainy old VHS copy was still a massive thrill, however.

the running man Arnold Schwarzenegger

When The Running Man hit cinemas in November 1987, there wasn’t a great deal of competition for the movie’s demographic at the time. Fatal Attraction was performing well, and making people hide their poor fluffy bunnies from potentially psychotic ladies, while Dirty Dancing was in its thirteenth week, plus family classic The Princess Bride which was only dropping off slightly week on week. The only other male-skewed action movie still in cinemas was Death Wish 4: The Crackdown which had already dropped off by 46% in its second week. So, Tri-Stars’ altered winter time release strategy looked like it could pay dividends. From what I recall at the time, The Running Man was generally met with a warm reception, and it was certainly regarded as a strong project for Arnie, at least compared to the underrated and probably underappreciated Raw Deal from the previous year.

In terms of production, the movie took a while to find its director, with Paul Michael Glaser first turning down the opportunity due to what he felt was a rushed pre-production time frame. Andrew Davis was hired and very swiftly fired after the movie went a week behind schedule, so the producers went back to Glaser and persuaded him to come on board. This change didn’t go down too well with Schwarzenegger, who felt that the change was a “terrible decision” because Glaser “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes”. This was also heightened by the rumoured change in leading man in the movie. Superman legend Christopher Reeve was apparently being considered to play Ben Richards and the movie would have been about an unemployed man who goes on a violent game show for a thirty-day period to feed his family. What we get in the final version sees Arnie’s Richards as an innocent but condemned criminal, forced to kick ass in the gladiatorial game show.

Joining the Austrian Oak as part of the cast is fellow Predator star, and goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus, Jesse Ventura as Captain Freedom, plus Richard Dawson as Damon Killian, the amoral creator of the Running Man game show, Maria Conchita Alonso as Amber Mendez, and Alien veteran Yaphet Kotto as William Laughlin. Rounding out the cast as some of the killer antagonists are Jim Brown as ‘Fireball’, Erland Van Lidth as ‘Dynamo’, Gus Rethwisch as ‘Buzzsaw’ and Professor Toru Tanaka as ‘Professor Subzero’. These are just some examples of the ensemble and alongside the ever reliable Arnie, his battles with the larger than life ‘professional killers’ bring the movie to life. Interestingly, Paula Abdul, who once found fame dancing alongside cartoon cats, was hired to choreograph the movie’s pre-show dance routines, with the music for these sequences coming from one of the Jackson 5’s founding members, Jackie Jackson.

REVIEW: I’ve always enjoyed revisiting The Running Man over the years. Younger me dug the over the top violence and one-liners and it’s one of those films that if it crops up during a channel hop, or a search through a streaming services’ output, I can’t help but get immersed in it, all over again. Having re-watched it for the umpteenth time for this retrospective, I can safely say it still ranks high in my list of favourite Arnie flicks, and not just for nostalgic reasons. It’s great getting to see a decent conversion of the movie, rather than the grainy VHS copy I first saw the movie on, and while the premise could have hindered the movie plot-wise, it’s still a highly engaging watch. As mentioned briefly earlier in the video, the story follows Arnie’s Ben Richards, a former police officer wrongly convicted of a massacre. In this oppressive society where the government controls the media and suppresses dissent, Richards is forced to participate in a brutal televised game show called “The Running Man.” Contestants are hunted by gladiators called “stalkers” in a deadly arena, and if they survive, they earn their freedom. Richards joins forces with a group of rebels to expose the corruption behind the game show and bring down the oppressive regime.

The premise for The Running Man is great, and although it deviates from the source material somewhat, there’s some wonderfully nostalgic fun to be had seeing Arnie take down a series of tooled-up killers like he’s in an 80s arcade game. Real life game show host Richard Dawson chews the scenery as the host of the “The Running Man” game show, Killian, and given his past, it’s a role he was born to play. He appears half drunk most of the time on screen and there’s a nice parallel between the character we see behind the scenes and the fake, jolly persona we see on camera. 

There’s also a ton of fun to be had seeing Arnie dispatch each of the professional killers sent his way to end him on the game show, with them dying mostly at the hands of their own weapons. This is also one of the movie’s slight flaws, in that there’s a certain element of ‘rinse and repeat’ with the action, but Arnie and his co-stars elevate the movie beyond this. However, the movie is really about the ludicrous action and social commentary on display, with crazed pensioners baying for blood and being rewarded with VCRs for choosing who gets slaughtered next. Plus, the series of crazy antagonists, skating around with hockey sticks, or the opera singing Dynamo, are the real reasons to tune into the show. It’s certainly a lot more fun than sitting through another tired Hunger Games sequel or prequel. Plus, of course, Arnie gets out unscathed without breaking much of a sweat!

the running man Arnold Schwarzenegger

LEGACY / NOW: The Running Man was released on November 13th in the US at 1,692 theaters, and grossed just over $8 million dollars during its opening weekend, with an overall gross of $38.1 million dollars. Critically, the movie had a mixed reception, and on Rotten Tomatoes it has a score of 67% based upon 48 reviews, if you take notice of that particular site of course. Roger Ebert awarded the film two-and-a-half-stars and complained that, “all the action scenes are versions of the same scenario”, but also praised Dawson’s performance. The Washington Post were more impressed, saying that the film is, “a fast-paced, futuristic purée of Beat the Clock, Max Headroom, professional wrestling and The Most Dangerous Game. Pumped and primed for self-parody, the burly star proves as funny as he is ferocious in this tough guy’s commentary on America’s preoccupation with violence and game shows”. Which is definitely more in line with my own opinion.

Interestingly, on the movie’s 30th Anniversary in 2017, the UK’s BBC cited the film as having successfully predicted some aspects of life in that year; economic collapses and a critique on American television culture apparently being the most accurate. I also have to mention the movie’s score by Beverly Hills Cop legend Harold Faltermeyer which, despite not featuring anything quite like the earworm of Axel F, is still very memorable. Ultimately though, The Running Man still holds a very warm place in the heart of this particular movie-fan and I’m intrigued to see what the mega talented Edgar Wright can do with the source material in his upcoming remake, re-imagining, whatever they’re gonna call it. If Glen Powell can pull off golden lycra like Arnie can, and maybe even bring along Sydney Sweeney for the ride then who knows. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll go in that direction, sadly.

More importantly, what’s YOUR take on the movie? Did Arnie and co. deliver another kick-ass 80s actioner that still holds up well today, or was that lycra bodysuit and over the top action too much? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, and we’ll see you wonderful action fans next time here on Arnie revisited. Thanks for watching!

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