In 2017, the United States is a totalitarian police state after worldwide economic collapse. The public adores a TV gameshow called The Running Man, in which criminals fight for their lives fleeing armed mercenaries called Stalkers. If they survive, they receive a pardon for their crimes. Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is framed for a police massacre during a food riot in Bakersfield, California. Arrested by his colleagues, and put in a labor camp, he escapes 18 months later with two resistance fighters, Harold Weiss (Marvin S. McIntyre) and William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto). The resistance, led by Mic (Mick Fleetwood) wants to hijack the ICS broadcast uplink to expose the government’s lies.
Richards is arrested at the airport and brought to Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), the host of The Running Man, who offers freedom to Weiss and Laughlin if Richards will star on his show. But Killian sends the others into the abandoned part of LA with Richards. They are attacked by Professor Subzero (Toru Tanaka) but Richards kills him, the first time a stalker has been killed on the show. Resistance fighter Amber Mendez (Maria Conchito Alonso)) finds filmed proof that Richards was framed, but she is sent into the game to die. The four runners search for the uplink, but they are stalked by Buzzsaw (Gud Wethwisch) and Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude).
Weiss and Laughlin find the uplink and Mendez memorizes the access codes. Buzzsaw mortally wounds Laughlin but Richards bisects him with his own chainsaw. Dynamo electrocutes Weiss but is switched off by Richards. Before dying, Laughlin tells Richards that the resistance has a hidden base in the arena. Hunted by the flamethrower-armed stalker Fireball (Jim Brown), Mendez finds the corpses of past “winners”. Richards saves her and kills Fireball by setting off his own gas-tank.
The audience is now cheering for Richards. Killian asks former stalker Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura) to fight, but he refuses. The network presents digitized stand-ins who appear to be Richards and Mendez being killed by Captain Freedom, but Mic locates Richards and Mendez, revealing the truth. The resistance storms the ICS control room and broadcasts the truth about Richards, plus pictures of the dead “winners”. Dynamo attacks Mendez, but she sets off the sprinklers and electrocutes him. Richards forces Killian into a rocket-powered sled and sends him through a billboard. The network goes down and Richards and Mendez walk off together.
The film was directed by Paul Michael Glaser, based on a novel by Stephen King, calling himself Richard Bachman. Christopher Reeve was supposed to play Ben Richards. Schwarzenegger was not happy about the direction, saying it was like a TV show and lost all its deeper meaning. Paula Abdul choreographed the opening dance-number. Dweezil Zappa was also in the film. The soundtrack was by Harold Faltermeyer, using music by Mozart, Wagner, Jackie Jackson, Glen Barbee, and John Parr.
Critics were not overwhelmed, calling it a mean, cruel, nasty, funny sendup of TV and accusing it of using the same mindless violence it satirizes. Later, it was praised as prescient about the American TV culture. Apparently, the producer of American Gladiators showed clips of the film to the network and said, “We’re doing this, except for the murdering part.” There was, of course, a video game.
People who worked for Richard Dawson on Family Feud said he was quite like his character on The Running Man. Schwarzenegger named his governor’s campaign bus The Running Man. The footage of the attacking helicopters came from King Kong (1976). In Predator, Jesse Ventura was kept out of shots with Arnie, but not here, and you could plainly see that Ventura towers over Schwarzenegger. Ultimately, The Running Man was inspired by a 1980s Japanese gameshow involving pain and humiliation. Twenty-five years later, we had The Hunger Games, which was pretty much the same plot.