A version of this article first appeared in December 2022 to celebrate the film’s 35th anniversary.

REVIEW: Long before either Squid Game or The Hunger Games, there was this addictive look at a deadly dystopian competition.

Along with Predator, The Terminator and Commando, it was part of a quartet of mid-1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger hits that helped elevate the Austrian-born bodybuilder to superhero status, fans hanging on his characters’ every quip, kiss-off line and usually audacious action.

Despite sometimes only moderate success at the box office, they were all films that really came into their own at the video store, regular repeat rentals for those not old enough to see them in a cinema (incredibly while the New Zealand censor gave this an M classification, the Aussies rated it R18), or wanting a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for a sleepover.

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While I love Commando’s one-liners, adore Predator’s conceit and admired James Cameron’s skill in making the most out of Schwarzenegger’s potential menace in The Terminator, this 1987 effort was my favourite Arnie movie of the era (surpassed only in his overall career by the early ‘90s double-bill of the Paul Verhoeven-directed Total Recall and Cameron’s stunning Terminator 2).

This was the film that led to the television phenomenon that was American Gladiators (the late 20th Century version of Australian Ninja Warrior), predicted digital face replacement decades before it became a potential nightmarish reality and poked fun at the world’s obsession with game shows.

Loosely based on the 1982 novel (although it was actually later deemed to have plagiarised a 1983 French film The Price of Danger) of the same name by one “Richard Bachman” (aka some horror writer who more usually went by the name of Stephen King), cleverly, it was not only directed by a former television star in Starsky and Hutch’s Paul Michael Glaser, but also featured long-running Family Feud host Richard Dawson as The Running Man’s manipulative and ratings-obsessed compare Damon Killian.

And, as with Verhoeven’s Robocop from the same year, while audiences might have been drawn in by the promise of violence and good triumphing over evil, the true delights were in the subversive details. Look out for ads for other network shows like The Hate Boat, Confess, Climbing for Dollars and Pain American Style. Note that the Justice Department has an entertainment division and the President an agent and be amused by the Adidas-sponsored tracksuits and rabid, predominantly elderly studio audiences.

Yes, in this dark vision of 2019, The Running Man is the most popular TV programme in an America where TV, like everything else, is controlled by the state, after the world economy collapsed. “Criminals” earn a chance to have their sentences reduced – or overturned – should they succeed in surviving the show’s four game zones and encounters with its selection of “stalkers” – everyone from the chainsaw-wielding Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch) to the operatic bundle of electricity Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth) and the muscle-bound Captain Freedom (Jesse Ventura). Think The Chase meets The Crystal Maze – only with the odds seriously stacked against you and The Beast and The Dark Destroyer determined to dismember you on live TV.

Into this seemingly hopeless scenario, our hero Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is thrown. Having disobeyed an order to disperse a food rioting crowd by deadly force, the former police helicopter pilot had instead been framed for the multiple fatalities. But, 18 months after being incarcerated – enough time to grow a Kane Williamson-esque beard – “the Butcher of Bakersfield” manages to escape, along with members of a resistance movement keen to wrest control back from the totalitarian regime. However, freedom doesn’t last long, although Richards’ impressive attempts to evade capture catch the eye of a desperate for a ratings-boost Killian.

What follows is a pretty ragged, but completely engrossing series of set pieces, as Richards attempts to stay alive in the game, wins over the audience and helps search for a way of broadcasting the truth about the people in charge.

It’s a tale full of memorable lines (“I’m not into politics. I’m into survival,” Schwarzenegger’s Richards deadpans), battles, unexpectedly mundane demises, cameos by Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa and, despite a spirited performance from Maria Conchita Alonso, some seriously sexist imagery. If the central show’s Paula Abdul-choreographed “Solid Gold-esque” dance trope aren’t troubling enough, why does Alonso’s network jingle composer Amber Mendez choose to work out in lingerie?

That aside though, more than 36 years on, The Running Man still holds up pretty well as a thought-provoking and maybe, slightly disturbingly prescient look into where reality television was going.

It’s not exactly slick, but there’s certainly never a dull moment.

The Running Man is now available to stream on Netflix.

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