The Running Man - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film adaptations of Stephen King's work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
One of the things that Stephen King is best known for is how prolific he is as a writer. In his book 'On Writing' he states that he writes on average 8 to 10 pages a day which he continues to do to this very day which is why you often find that you are only a few months away from a new novel or collection of short stories. This proved to be an issue early in his career as his publisher limited him to releasing one novel a year to curb any potential oversaturation in the face of his growing popularity. Unhappy with this, King convinced his publisher to allow him to release more of his work under a pseudonym to not only allow him to release more books but to see if the general public were more interested in his talent rather than his brand.
The publisher agreed to this idea and when they asked King for a name on the spot he replied, Richard Bachman and so a literary cult figure was born. The name itself is derived from a mixture of Crime author Donald E. Westlake's pseudonym Richard Stark and the rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Seven novels were released under this pseudonym with one of the most famous being 'The Running Man'.
Director: Paul Michael Glaser
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Dawson, Yaphet Kotto, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, Erland van Lidth
Written by: Steven E. de Souza
Produced by: George Linder, Tim Zinnemann
Cinematography by: Thomas Del Ruth
Original Score by: Harold Faltermeyer, Vassal Benford
In a dystopian America, a falsely convicted policeman gets his shot at freedom when he must forcibly participate in a TV game show where convicts, runners, must battle killers for their freedom.
Originally written in the early 70's King broke his usual discipline of writing up to 10 pages a day by writing the entire book in the space of 72 hours according to the book 'The Complete Stephen King Universe'. In the 1996 edition of 'The Bachman Books' King described the novel as being, "a book written by a young man who was angry, energetic and infatuated with the art and craft of writing". Producer George Linder first came upon the novel at an airport bookstore in 1982 and was hooked by the tagline, "Welcome to America in 2025, when the best men don't run for President; they run for their lives." Sold by this, Linder bought the rights to the novel (despite a suspiciously high fee) and took it to Rob Cohen and Keith Barish. It was then they realised that they got a steal as Bachman's true identity was discovered to be King.
The opening crawl of the cinematic version of 'The Running Man' establishes a dystopian world set in the not too distant future (or in our case past) of 2017 where a police state has been established due to economic collapse and a shortage of natural resources. There is mass censorship as the state controls television placating the nation with the popular programme, 'The Running Man', an extreme cross between 'Gladiators' and 'Survivor' where contestants fight for their lives against brutal assassins. We then cut to a police helicopter pilot and hero of the film, Ben Richards played by legendary action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Defying orders to fire upon civilians during a food riot he is incapacitated by his fellow officers and arrested for insubordination.
The casting of Schwarzenegger in the lead has always been an issue for purists of the book with even King distancing himself from the project knowingly over the casting. In the novel Richards is a scrawny everyday man who enters the contest to help provide for his family, painting him as an underdog in the face of assassins hunting him on the show. The original choices to play Richards included the likes of Christopher Reeves and Don Johnson with the initial drafts of the script being closer to this vision. Their potential casting is a far cry from the five time Mr. Universe who is forced into the show due to a crime he didn't commit but given his physique he is every bit a match for those hunting him on the show. It is this physical prowess that entices leading villain Damon Killian to try and get him on the show.
With the success of 'Conan the Barbarian' and 'The Terminator', Schwarzenegger was fast becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Whilst the grim nature of the Bachman novel may have been a change of pace for Schwarzenegger at this stage of his career it is clear that Steven E. de Souza's script (which underwent over 15 rewrites during production) would have to be adjusted to suit Arnie's popularity. This is clear from the second scene, a staged prison riot that results in Richards' escape. In the midst of a tense battle between guards and inmates, Schwarzenegger has the time to ask a guard, "need a lift?" as he raises him above his head and tosses him off a platform because in this world, even a wronged man like Ben Richards can afford to take the time to crack a quip or two. This is why Schwarzenegger was so beloved in the 80's and 90's. He will never win an award for his acting ability but his charisma and screen presence cut through any shortcomings making this version of 'The Running Man' an ideal vehicle for someone like him as he dispatches bad guys with one liners and a cheeky grin.
Once free alongside fellow inmates Laughlin and Weiss (played by Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre respectively) they meet up with a revolutionary group led by Mic (played by Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood) who want to hijack the ICS broadcast network's uplink facilities to expose the government's lies. Richards declines an offer to help and in the process of trying to escape to a new life in Hawaii he gets caught up with music composer Amber Mendez (played by María Conchita Alonso) and is apprehended. His arrest captures the attention of charismatic gameshow host Damon Killian (played by Richard Dawson).
Dawson's casting in the film is a masterstroke as his experience as a gameshow host on 'Family Feud' adds a degree of believability to not only the character but the game show. His banter with the audience as they choose which gladiator (known as Stalkers) they want to choose to murder a contestant as well as his reactions to the death of a Stalker add a surreal sense of normality to proceedings where you buy into the fact that this is a show that has been on the air for years. His ruthlessness to his staff off camera too only adds to the performance (which isn't too far from reality based on reports from ex employees of 'Family Feud'). He is the perfect villain for this kind of film and is pitched perfectly by Dawson. One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is how doctored footage and the use of deep fake technology is used to alter news stories or video packages. The media presents Ben Richards as the Butcher of Bakersfield in a video package before he enters the arena showing how he opened fire on crowds of innocent people during a food riot. Even on the show they try to combat his growing success by killing him off with his face being superimposed over a stuntman's. The audience doesn't question it as it fits an easily digestible narrative where there are good guys and bad guys. In this world the good guys always win thanks to the state which they should be grateful for. It's remarkable how it bears similarities to today with the growth of fake news and believability in media cover in general.
This sort of good versus bad mentality decided by the media within 'The Running Man' has completely brainwashed the masses perception of violence as it is entertainment when Stalkers brutally kill contestants on the show yet it is a harrowing experience when the shoe is on the other foot and a contestant get one up on a Stalker as shown with the death of Subzero (played by Professor Toru Tanaka). The dichotomy in the audience reaction is fascinating as they are stunned into a state of shock and silence after he is strangled to death with some barbed wire even though they cheered with a bloodthirsty relish as he tried to inflict similar pain to the contestants on the show. His death is commemorated by interpretive dance with the show's cheerleaders before being cut off for some important messages from the show's sponsors. It is also ironic how the audience sides more with Richards as the show progresses despite believing him to be a mass murderer. They seem to side with who can offer the highest body count in the face of everything they are presented with.
As for the Stalkers themselves, they are nothing more than larger than life cartoon characters. Revered as being godlike, they are not too dissimilar to a gladiator from the show 'Gladiators' or even a professional wrestler in terms of their gimmick and how they present themselves in public (Professor Toru Tanaka and Jesse Ventura are former pro-wrestlers in real life) Subzero is the ice hockey player from hell, Buzzsaw (played by Gus Rethwisch) is a motorbike riding chainsaw wielding redneck and Dynamo (played by Erland Van Lidth) is an operatic creep who can shoot bolts of electricity from his gauntlet. They make for fun villains for Richards and company to pit their wits up against in their quest for survival and the scenes in which they face off are wildly entertaining.
In general the world building in the film is quite good despite its limited scope. The lavish game show complete with exotic dancers seduce the audience into believing that the pain and suffering they are about to witness is going to be a lot of fun. Even the commercials have a touch of Verhoeven like satire seen in the likes of 'Robocop' and 'Starship Troopers' where you can do a daily workout with veteran Stalker Captain Freedom (played by Jesse Ventura) or watch other extreme shows like 'Climbing for Dollars'. It is a society where everything is geared or stems from some sort of violent content. It draws parallels to 'The Purge' series as it appears to be a form of catharsis for violent urges.
By the end Richards completes his arc of survivalist turned revolutionary. He kills the bad guy and gets the girl and leads everyone watching at home to believing that everything will be alright. Whilst this wildly deviates away from the Bachman source it is nevertheless an entertaining watch, especially for fans of dystopian survival movies like 'The Hunger Games' or 'Battle Royale'. Although it had production issues with Arnold Schwarzenegger believing that director Paul Michael Glaser was too televisual in his approach disallowing the film from exploring deeper themes, I disagree. I feel this iteration has a fair amount to say about perception of violence and fake news which feels more relevant now than when it was made (at the tail end of the Reagan presidency). It may be presented as a typical Schwarzenegger action vehicle and it does function that way but there definitely is more to it if you dig underneath the gloss.
- Joseph McElroy