Having just watched The Running Man (1987)again after several decades (Last time I indulged in repeat viewings of favorite action movies, it was still in VHS format.) since I saw it as a schoolboy, I believe it was grossly underrated and unfairly panned by critics at the time of its theatrical run.
There really is a fundamental difference when you revisit a story you knew as a child when you’re an adult. Suddenly things you did not notice then, have taken center stage now. That was certainly true of The Running Man when I watched it in some local theater with my father somewhere in Luneta a long time ago. As a child, things were a bit more simple. Good guys here, bad guys on the other side. And when your good guy is Arnold, a fun time is to be had when you look forward to him beating those baddies to a pulp with his bare hands along with his trademark sardonic kiss-offs and one-liners. You don’t go to a Schwarzenegger movie to see him make some profound statement about life and pseudo-intellectual art-house crap; you go see him fighting others and “terminating” them with extreme prejudice.
Written as a short novel by Stephen King as his now-deceased alter-ego Richard Bachman, The Running Man shows a dystopian future where a sadistic, updated version of the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome lords over primetime television. Where convicted felons slug it out with “stalkers” out to kill them for freedom and truckloads of cash. The show, called The Running Man, is hosted by the charismatic Damon Killian (incidentally played to villainous perfection by Family Feud host Richard Dawson).
What struck me about the movie is how timely and way ahead of its time it was. Back then “reality TV” was a still an unheard-of concept. And the excesses that came to define it were already seen in the movie: Only instead of narcissism and abysmal materialism, it’s people’s bloodlust that was being catered to. The way corporate/popular media was presented in that story was brilliantly executed. It’s not the first pop culture criticism of that entity but it made it palatable to the masses by packaging it as a summer blockbuster. Even more poignant is that it closely parallels the ongoing media fracas involving the incoming Philippine president. The Running Man has clearly shown how mass media cannot be trusted. Where despicable government actions, in collusion with mass media and their corporate partners, can turn the blame from the accountable party and turn public sentiment against the very people who fought the wrongdoing.
With The Running Man, Stephen King and Arnold Schwarzenegger probably made the most important work of their lives.