We Love… Trash – The Running Man

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

There are nights when you look through your DVD collection and none of your favourite films float your boat  – what you need is some serious Trash –  the black sheep of your collection; something so bad that makes you feel good. Warning: to appreciate these films booze is recommended. And so over the next couple of weeks the Film Ireland collection of filmaholics shed their dignity, hide their shame and open their bins to reveal their trashiest films in the latest installment of…

We Love…


The Running Man

(Paul Michael Glaser)

‘… so many ’80s action films carried an 18 certificate, yet could only be truly appreciated by children under the age of 13 … ’

Kieran O’Leary

I’ve always felt that there is usually something, even a single moment that makes watching any film a worthwhile experience. Even the trashiest film may hold a few gems of some sort, whether intentional or not. As a child, I adored The Running Man. It was with no sense of humour or irony that I enjoyed it. I thought that it was a brilliant, gruesome, well paced Arnie vehicle. I didn’t realise at the time that it was pretty much trash. I was so in love with the film that I even read the original novel by Stephen King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman.

When revisiting the film as an adult, I was astounded by how terrible it really was. From the tacky costumes, some of Arnie’s most shameless one liners, the poorly executed set pieces to the aimless storytelling, it is often tough to watch. I’ve always found it interesting that so many ’80s action films carried an 18 certificate, yet could only be truly appreciated by children under the age of 13.

Still, there was something about the film that  instantly grabbed me. The lighting, colour tints and general set design are often quite striking early on, and it is reminiscent of the grittiness of  Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo series. The first glimpse of the detention centre is all smoke and sparks, with a few strange oddities earning close ups. It is really atmospheric, and even quite artisic in certain shots. I was surprised to learn that Paul Michael Glaser, who you probably know as the original ‘Starsky’, directed the film. This is where my genuine appreciation of the film ends, as everything else apart from that early scene is trash.

Going to the toilet proved difficult

Arnie plays Ben Richards, who is falsely charged with massacring unarmed starving civilians by a totalitarian regime. He launches a daring prison break, but when the producer of the titular reality TV series sees Arnie’s spectacular physique, he hunts him down and forces him to appear on the show. The show’s premise is very similar to Battle Royale or The Hunger Games. The film has had a brief resurgence recently as a result of the latter’s success.

The film lazily attempts to set up this dystopian world, and even briefly sketches a resistance movement led by Mick Fleetwood. The sets get tackier as the film progresses, and there are even extended dance sequences that have absolutely no function whatsoever. The film drags painfully in between the kitschy laughs

It’s the great flaws that make this film watchable, and it’s why I’m talking about it in this column. The film looks like it could break into a camp extravaganza at so many points, but settles for a more restrained garishness instead. Any of the villainous ‘stalkers’ who Arnie has to tackle  are totally inept, and it’s their own lack of talent which leads to their downfall for the most part. Take Dynamo, for example. We first see him on stage belting out an operatic tune, dressed in blinking LED lights. He then starts zapping things with his electro-raygun. On the battlefield,  he blindly takes Arnie’s not too subtle bait (he screams ‘FOLLOW ME LIGHTBULB’), and flips his vehicle after failing to scale a steep rocky hill. Arnie spares him, but he later meets his doom, with his pants around his ankles, electrocuted by a water sprinkler

His first battle against ‘Professor Sub-Zero’ ends in dramatic silence due to the shocking defeat. The silence is broken by Arnie’s line ‘Here is Sub-Zero, now plain zero!’, which still doesn’t make much sense to me even after all these years. The film is 100 minutes long, and could easily have been trimmed considerably. There is a huge amount of filler, and in a way, it’s probably best consumed as a series of clips on youtube. Schwarzenegger doesn’t even seem very interested, and seemingly puts in very little effort into any facet of his performance. He does show some extended range early in the film, as he displays a rarely seen beard as opposed to his trademark stubble.

If you’ll allow me an anecdote to close this out, I would be greatly obliged. I revisited the film due to Dweezil Zappa’s brief cameo appearance. A friend of mine said he wanted to approach him after his gig in Vicar Street and mention how he watched The Running Man to psyche himself up for the show. Somehow, I ended up meeting Dweezil first, and in a moment of anxiety, I stole my friend’s line. Zappa took it well, but seemed uncomfortable and embarrassed. His drummer came out soon after and threw his snare skin into the crowd that remained. I wasn’t paying attention, and it landed with a surprisingly painful thump right on my head. It was some kind of karmic pay-off for my act of social impropriety, and The Running Man is forever associated with that bang on the head. There was no Arnie-esque one liner after that killer blow, just the jeers and insults of an amused crowd.


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