The Running Man is a 1987 American science fiction action film directed by Paul Michael Glaser and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, María Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Jesse Ventura, and Richard Dawson. It is very loosely based on the 1982 novel of the same title written by Stephen King and published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The film’s story, set in a dystopian United States between 2017 and 2019, is about a television show called The Running Man, where convicted criminal “runners” must escape death at the hands of professional killers. The Running Man was moderate box office success in the United States, grossing $37 million on its $28 million budget, but opened to mixed reviews from critics.
In 2017, after a worldwide economic collapse, the United States has become a totalitarian police state, censoring all cultural activity. The U.S. government pacifies the populace by broadcasting game shows where convicted criminals fight for their lives, including the gladiator-style The Running Man, hosted by the ruthless Damon Killian, where “runners” attempt to evade “stalkers”, armed mercenaries, around a large arena, and near-certain death for a chance to be pardoned by the state.
By 2019, Ben Richards, a police helicopter pilot framed for a massacre during a food riot in Bakersfield, California, escapes from a labor camp with two resistance fighters, Harold Weiss and William Laughlin, and finds refuge at a resistance camp headed by their leader, Mic. Instead of joining the resistance, Richards seeks shelter at his brother’s apartment. He finds it is now occupied by Amber Mendez, a composer for ICS, the network that broadcasts The Running Man. Richards asks Mendez about the whereabouts of his brother, and she says that he was taken for “re-education.”
Taking Amber hostage, Richards attempts to flee to Hawaii, but she alerts airport security and Richards is captured and taken to ICS. There, Killian coerces him into participating in The Running Man in exchange for Laughlin and Weiss not participating, but Ben learns that Killian had enrolled them as runners anyway and swears revenge, which Killian brushes off.
As the game begins, Richards and his friends are attacked by the first stalker, “Subzero,” but they fight back, with Richards garroting Subzero – the first time a stalker has ever died on the show. Laughlin and Weiss search for the network’s uplink facilities, which they realize are in the game zone. Amber sees a falsified news report on Richards’ capture and, suspicious of the media’s veracity, does some investigating. After learning that footage of the massacre was doctored to incriminate Richards, she is captured by her ICS colleagues and sent into the game zone.
The runners split up, each pair pursued by a different stalker. “Buzzsaw” mortally wounds Laughlin, but is killed by Richards. Weiss and Amber locate the uplink and learn the access codes, but “Dynamo” finds them and electrocutes Weiss. Amber’s screams lead Richards to her, and, as the two evade Dynamo, the stalker’s buggy flips, trapping him inside. Refusing to kill a helpless opponent, Richards leaves Dynamo alive to jeers from the audience. He and Amber then return to Laughlin, who, before dying, reveals that the resistance has a hideout within the game zone.
Back at ICS, Killian sees Richards’ popularity growing, with viewers betting on him instead of the stalkers. Off-camera, Killian tries to offer Richards a job as a stalker, but when Richards refuses, Killian sends in the next stalker, “Fireball”. Fireball chases them into an abandoned factory, where Amber discovers the decomposing corpses of the previous seasons’ “winners” – realizing that they were killed by Fireball and their victory was faked. Fireball goes after Amber, but Richards rescues her and kills him using his own weaponry.
Frustrated and running out of options, Killian seeks “Captain Freedom,” a retired stalker, to kill them. However, when Freedom refuses, the network creates digital body doubles of Freedom, Richards and Amber, which are then used to fake Richards’ and Amber’s deaths on screen. In the game zone, Richards and Amber are found by Mic and taken to the resistance’s hideout, where they learn of their “deaths.” Using the access codes, the rebels get into ICS’ control room, broadcasting footage that exonerates Richards and reveals the truth about the game’s previous “winners”. As Richards heads to the main studio floor, shocking the audience who had watched him supposedly die, Amber fights and kills Dynamo, the last remaining stalker.
Richards confronts Killian after having dealt with security, who tried to kill him and the audience to cover up everything, not knowing it was being broadcast. Killian begs for his life, saying he created the show to appease the U.S. love of reality television and televised violence. In response, Richards decides to give the audience what they want right now – sending Killian to the game zone in a rocket sled. The sled hits a billboard bearing Killian’s likeness and explodes, killing Killian to the delight of the audience. Richards and Amber kiss and then romantically walk out of the studio together.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards
- María Conchita Alonso as Amber Mendez
- Yaphet Kotto as William Laughlin
- Richard Dawson as Damon Killian
- Marvin J. McIntyre as Harold Weiss
- Mick Fleetwood as Mic
- Professor Toru Tanaka as Professor Subzero
- Gus Rethwisch as Eddie “Buzzsaw” Bitowski
- Jesse Ventura as Captain Freedom
- Jim Brown as Fireball
- Erland Van Lidth De Jeude as Dynamo
- Dweezil Zappa as Stevie
- Kurt Fuller as Tony
- Rodger Bumpass as Phil Hillton
- Edward Bunker as Lenny
- Sven-Ole Thorsen as Sven
- Karen Leigh Hopkins as Brenda
In a 2015 interview about the film, Paul Michael Glaser says that he was originally approached to direct the film but declined because he felt that the pre-production period was insufficient. Director Andrew Davis was hired instead but fired after two weeks because the production was by that time behind schedule by one week. Schwarzenegger has stated this was a “terrible decision”, as Glaser “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes”, and believes this hurt the movie.
Overall critical reaction to the film was mixed to positive, with critics praising Richard Dawson‘s acting for Killian. Critic Roger Ebert gave the film a two and half stars out of four, complaining that “all the action scenes are versions of the same scenario”, but praised Dawson’s performance, stating that Dawson “has at last found the role he was born to play”. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a “fresh” certification, with a score of 63% based on reviews from 35 critics, with an average score of 5.5/10. The site’s critical consensus states, “The Running Man is winking sci-fi satire with ridiculous clothes and workmanlike direction”. On Metacritic the film holds a score of 45 out of 100 based on reviews from 12 critics, indicating “mixed or average reviews”. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of “B+” on an A+ to F scale.
On the film’s 30th anniversary in 2017, The Running Man was cited by a BBC journalist as having made accurate predictions about life in 2017, including an economic collapse, and offering an enduring critique of “American television culture”.
The film’s writer Steven de Souza himself reinforced these predictions in a podcast interview with Motherboard. The New York Post said in 2019 that the film “correctly predicted … the widening gap between the rich and poor”, depicting homeless shantytowns and skyscrapers for the wealthy resembling the real New York City and Los Angeles, and societal obsession with reality TV. De Souza said that a producer of American Gladiator sold his show with clips from The Running Man, telling the network “We’re doing exactly this — except the murdering part”.
In The Running Man’s opening weekend, it was released in 1,692 theaters and grossed $8,117,465. The film’s total domestic gross was $38,122,105.