The Running Man, Paul Michael Glaser’s adaptation of the Richard Bachman (Stephen King) novel, turns 30 years old this year! To honor this iconic Schwarzenegger flick, allow us to paint a picture of 1987’s version of our modern time.
Following a worldwide economic collapse, American society has become a totalitarian police state, censoring all cultural activity. The U.S. government has pacified the American people with game shows in which convicted criminals fight for their lives. The most popular version of these shows, a gladiator-style series called The Running Man, is hosted by the ruthless, ratings-driven Damon Killian, and follows the convicts (runners) while they attempt to evade armed mercenaries (stalkers) around a large arena for the entertainment of the live studio audience and the millions watching around the world. If the runners survive the attacks and defeat the stalkers, they are assured a pardon from the state and will live in luxury for the rest of their days. The odds, however, are not in their favor.
The Butcher of Bakersfield
Fast forward two years. Ben Richards, a helicopter pilot wrongfully convicted for a massacre during a food riot in Bakersfield, California, escapes from a labor camp with the help of William Laughlin and Harold Weiss, two members of a growing underground resistance movement.
Upon escaping, Richards seeks shelter in his brother’s apartment, only to find that it’s now occupied by Amber Mendez, a composer for the network that broadcasts The Running Man. Taking Mendez hostage, Richards attempts to flee to Hawaii, now a separate state, but is captured and taken to the production company after Mendez alerts security to his identity. While there, Richards meets Killian, who attempts to convince him to participate in The Running Man. Richards reluctantly agrees after Killian threatens to force Laughlin and Weiss to participate, but soon learns that Laughlin and Weiss have already been enlisted as runners anyway.
Though Killian has tricked “The Butcher of Bakersfield” into participating in his juggernaut game show, something that will surely cause an all-time high ratings spike, the host gets more than he bargained for when Richards is not only realized to be a worthy contestant, but starts to win over the crowd.
The game begins with Richards and his resistance mates being attacked by perennial hockey champ, Subzero. With a sharp stick and explosive hockey pucks, Subzero manages to capture Weiss while Laughlin and Richards are left to fight off the stalker. After several close calls, Richards manages to wrap a string of barbed wire around Subzero’s throat, pulling tightly on the wire until he dies – much to the shock of the crowd, who had never witnessed the demise of a stalker.
Richards and Laughlin share a sweet high-five after defeating the stalker, then they free Weiss from captivity and move deeper into the arena. At this point, however, the game receives a fourth runner in Amber Mendez, who is caught investigating the massacre accusations against Richards, learning that the reports were false and that Richards is innocent. As punishment, Mendez is cast into the game and must survive alongside the other three runners.
Buzzsaw and Dynamo
After the death of Subzero, Buzzsaw and Dynamo are released into The Running Man arena at the same time. Buzzsaw using his trademark chainsaw to terrorize the runners, and Dynamo bringing theatrics with operatic vocals and electricity. The runners decide that the best course of action is to split up, obviously never having seen a horror movie or Scooby-Doo before.
Richards and Laughlin are pursued by Buzzsaw. The chainsaw wielding madman is eventually killed by Richards after the two end up in a muscle-match for possession of the chainsaw, but not before he critically wounds Laughlin and leaves him for dead.
Meanwhile, Weiss and Mendez locate the uplink and learn the access codes to help the resistance bring down the show and take their fight to the government. When Dynamo suddenly shows up and electrocutes Weiss, Richards is led to the scene by the frightful screams of Mendez. The runners manage to evade Dynamo, causing his buggy to flip, which subsequently traps him inside. Refusing to kill a helpless opponent, Richards leaves the stalker alive as the studio and home audiences watch on. Richards and Mendez learn that the resistance has a secret hideout within the game zone, however, they’re faced with another obstacle before locating it.
Back at the studio, Killian realizes the quickly growing popularity of Richards among the audience, with viewers starting to bet on him rather than the stalkers. Off camera, he offers Richards a job as a stalker, which Richards refuses, prompting Killian to send Fireball, the next stalker.
Fireball chases Mendez and Richards into an abandoned factory, where Mendez discovers the corpses of seasons’ previous winners, realizing that they had been murdered by Fireball and that their victory was faked. Fireball pursues Mendez, but she is rescued by Richards, who manages to eliminate Fireball in the process.
Running out of options, Killian recruits retired stalker Captain Freedom to play The Running Man one final time, but he refuses. Having nothing else to work with, the network creates digital body doubles of Freedom, Richards, and Mendez, which are used to fake the on-screen deaths of both Mendez and Richards.
In The Running Man game zone, Richards and Mendez are captured and taken to the hideout of the resistance, where they learn about their faked deaths. Using the access codes, the rebels force themselves into the control room, broadcasting footage that exonerates Richards from his crimes and reveals the truth about the “winners” from previous seasons of The Running Man. As Richards heads to the main floor of the studio, much to the shock of the audience who had just witnessed him die, Mendez is attacked by Dynamo but manages to kill the final stalker.
Richards finally confronts Killian, who has now lost all credibility, prompting him to beg for his life in front of the audience, claiming that he created the show to appease the U.S. love of reality television and televised violence. In response, Richards forces Killian into one of the rocket sleds, sending him into the game zone. The sled slams into a billboard of Killian himself and explodes, killing Killian, much to the newfound delight of the audience.
Long story short, don’t fuck with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He will kill you.
Are you a fan of The Running Man? What’s your favorite moment or one-liner from the film? We’d love to hear from you!