The following piece was finished early on Monday morning, not knowing the great Yaphet Kotto would be pronounced dead in just a matter of hours. While The Running Man is very clearly an Arnold vehicle start to finish, it would be incomplete without the great work of Kotto as William Laughlin. Whether fighting alongside Arnold, trying to escape a Xenomorph, or trafficking drugs as a Bond villain, Kotto kicked all types of ass for the better part of FIVE decades. A truly special character actor and legitimate Cameroonian royalty, Kotto is sure to be kicking some ass and taking some names inside those pearly gates.
“Don’t let us down. I don’t want to be the only asshole in heaven, Ben.”
On the heels of the announcement that the Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) novel The Running Man is getting a second big screen adaptation, helmed by none other than modern genre master Edgar Wright, there is no better time to revisit the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle from director Paul Michael “Starsky” Glaser. As with many King adaptations, the 1987 film is strongly disliked by the author, due in large part to how far it strays from the source material and in larger part to the casting of his “everyman” lead character by the big, buff, larger-than-life action hero. Nonetheless, the film is a fun and interesting romp that is nothing if not a truly enjoyable time from start to finish.
Filled with Arnold one-liners, over-the-top villains, and all the swift paced action you’d imagine, the basic premise of the film is as such:
It’s 2017 and the United States is a totalitarian state following a global economic crash. The government placates its bloodthirsty populace through its partnership with a death race style game show that pits contestants against insane armed “stalkers” whose sole job is to kill them. The contestants are convicted felons chosen for this “opportunity” to earn a pardon from their crime; however, it becomes apparent quite early that no one truly earns their life back through this morbid gameshow.
When morally sound military pilot Ben Richards chooses to disobey an order from his government to massacre innocent people, he gets framed through manipulated video footage as a mass murderer. His strength, intuition, and skill demonstrated while at a workcamp leads the producers of the gameshow to find him as a Hail Mary contestant to get their ratings up.
Of course, the stalkers, their boss, and the general public are in for a big surprise when they witness Ben Richards in action.
Like a good Arnold film should, this film – first and foremost – shows off his action star credentials: big stunts, imposing athleticism and strength, scene-stealing charisma, and more than a couple of great fight scenes. The scenes can be repetitive at times and the basic set-up of each of the battles with the in stalkers are almost identical, but Arnold and his cronies (notably the great Yaphet Kotto) are always fun to watch, especially when considering we get to watch them share the screen with stalkers played by pro-wrestlers Professor Toru Tanaka and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, as well as NFL Hall of Famer and exploitation action superstar Jim Brown.
To me, there is a specific type of action film that really works as a palate cleanser, where one can turn their brain off from the harsh realities of this world and just have a nice time. In other words, this type of action film is 90 to 120 minute escape… and The Running Man is definitely that. Despite having a plot that certainly satirizes some of the worst parts of our modern society and one that slices even more today that it did upon its release, the way the film is compiled puts all of that on the backburner and brings the fun to the front and center.
The first we see Arnold’s Ben Richards, he is flying a military helicopter and receives an order on his headset to gun down a group of bystanders (seemingly peaceful protestors of some sort).
When he refuses, the orders to the rest of the crew aboard the helicopter are to subdue him and carry out the orders without him. He fights them off briefly, but ultimately is knocked out and the crowd is opened up upon. And, with that, we experience the darkest moments in the film; in fact, from there everything really seems to feel heightened and far less serious.
Soon, we get to experience the bigger, brighter tone of the rest of the film, introduced to us by game host extraordinaire Richard Dawson as host of and brains behind the game show “The Running Man,” Damon Killian. Killian is diabolical and sleazy but comes off more as a comic book villain than a real-life one. When he asks the crowd, “Who loves you and who do you love?” it’s so obvious that he’s a wonderful two-faced movie monster, as Dawson plays his role in a pitch-perfect manner. And, once the actual game show begins, the parade of cartoonish stalkers follows.
Attacked first by Professor Subzero (Toru Tanaka), Richards and his two friends fight valiantly. Subzero, as his name suggests, has an ice theme to his attacks. Essentially a killer hockey player, his “powers” look cool but end up being quite lame when compared to the badassery of Richards and crew. Not only does Subzero not get the kill, but he becomes the first stalker in the show’s history to be killed by a runner. Ben, in true Arnold fashion, puts the accent on the kill with a one-liner directed at evil mastermind Killian: “Hey, Killian! Here’s Subzero! Now… plain zero!”
After killing a stalker, Killian deploys two stalkers at once, Dynamo (played by opera singer Erland Philip Peter Van Lidth De Jeude) and Buzzsaw (played by lesser-known portrayer of big, buff baddies Gus Rethwisch). Dynamo is essentially an opera singer with a suit that allows him to shoot electric bolts at his prey. Buzzsaw, as his name suggests, is just a dude with a chainsaw – though he does have a cool motorcycle and a tough guy flat top, so that helps. Of course, these two cartoon characters can’t beat the Arnold, whose Ben Richards is now operating on all cylinders. While Dynamo is somewhat left to his own devices after he’s no longer a threat, Buzzsaw gets literally split in half, which is – of course – coupled with a great one-liner: “He had to split!”
At this point, the team has gained another runner, the reluctant love interest of Ben Richards, Amber Mendez (portrayed by the beautiful Cuban-born “Miss Teenage World” and noted star of stage and screen Maria Conchita Alonso). However, they’ve also lost one of the original runners, as Buzzsaw has also mortally wounded Kotto’s Laughlin. Before passing, Laughlin reveals to Richards that there is a resistance and how to find them.
This new subplot adds some wrinkles, but we’re not yet done with the stalkers, as Jim Brown’s Fireball, a charismatic dude with a blowtorch and a seemingly neverending fuel supply. And, after dispatching Fireball as a threat, there’s also Jesse Ventura’s Captain Freedom for a final battle of sorts and a head-to-head with the big boss Killian, all the while weaving in the involvement of the resistance. While there is some added intrigue, it’s really all about each boss battle, one after the next. Much like a video game, each new level brings new fun challenges and the final payoff is all about putting that slimeball Killian in his place.
All said and done, The Running Man is my happy place. When I need a break from life, it’s one of three things: a goofy comedy, a Guy Fieri show, or a big popcorn action film. Throw in a bit of dystopian future sci-fi as we have here, and that action film is always the best choice. It hits all my sweet spots. There are surely tons of great action films to break down into interesting components, allegorical connections, and technical filmmaking aspects, but for me, films like The Running Man are really all about how much fun I can have and how much I can turn off the real world. And, in that regard, this is among the best. ★