Film: The Running Man

Richards: Killian — I'll be back.
Killian: Only in a rerun.

The Running Man is a 1987 sci-fi action film directed by Paul Michael Glaser (yes, that one), which is set in a dystopian future. It is a loose adaptation of the book of the same name.

When the cop Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) refuses to fire at innocent civilians, he is captured and sent to prison. He escapes, but is captured again, and ends up as a contestant in the nation's number one television show: The Running Man. In the show, Ben and his fellow "contestants" must fight their way through the Stalkers, killers set to stop their advance, to win their freedom.

Not to be confused with the South Korean variety show either.

The film provides examples of:

  • '80s Hair: The Running Man's "It's Showtime!" dancers' big hair.
  • Adaptational Curves: Ben Richards in the book is "scrawny" and "pre-tubercular". Schwarzenegger… isn't. Stephen King even jokes about this, saying that Ben's "about as far as you can get" from Schwarzenegger.
  • All or Nothing: First prize is a full pardon. Second prize is a gruesome death.
    • All for Nothing: In the film, the star prize turns out to be the same as the consolation prize… And the boobie prize.
  • Altum Videtur: The gratuitous use of Latin in Richards' contract. All of it is real legal Latin, but wildly out of place.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: In The Eighties, game show prizes were much more apt to be actual prizes (particularly the Home Game) than cash. Of course, the expectation that this trend would still be around Twenty Minutes into the Future places this film firmly into another trope entirely.
  • Anti-Climax: It sure looked like Sven and Richards were going to deliver one hell of a Final Battle. Sven walks away from him after deciding he's taken enough shit off Killian.
  • Artistic License – Law: The court-appointed lawyer of sorts that Killian gets just says a lot of complete nonsense.
  • Ass Shove: Amber Mendez and the tape of the Bakersfield Massacre. Or possibly another nearby location.
  • Attempted Rape: Dynamo attempts to force himself on Amber when he runs into her in the studio.
    Dynamo: "I'll show you 'dickless'."
  • Awesome but Impractical: Most of the stalkers carry weapons that purely rely on Rule of Cool. Guess what happens to them.
  • Bad Ass: Richards.
  • Bad Boss: Killian isn't a particularly nice man to his employees, his bodyguard Sven in particular. This comes back to bite him.
  • Big Bad: Killian.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Subverted. Laughlin is mortally wounded by Buzzsaw, but manages to hold on for a few minutes. When he does succumb to his wounds, Weiss has already been killed by Dynamo.
  • Blood Knight: Captain Freedom and Buzzsaw.
  • Blood Sport
  • Bond One-Liner: Some of the best in film history.
    • (picks up a guard and throw him over the railing) "Need a lift?"
    • (cuts Buzzsaw in half) "He had to split."
    • (strangles Sub-Zero with barbed wire) "Here is Sub-Zero, now plain zero!" and "He was a pain in the neck."
    • (hurls road-flare at Fireball) "What a hothead."
    • (stabs a man in the back after signing a contract he was resting on the man's back) "Don't forget to send me a copy".
    • (sends Killian flying on a sled into a soda billboard) "Well, that hit the spot."
  • Bread and Circuses
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: A coworker who sees Ben on News report to Amber, the woman who turned in Ben at the airport, tells her, "You're lucky, he could have raped you... or killed you... or raped you and killed you." Her tone and facial expressions indicate she thinks the prospect is exciting.
  • Brick Joke: Killian's bodyguard Sven and steroids.
  • The Butcher: Ben Richards, "The Butcher of Bakersfield". Played with, in that Richards himself is innocent of the crime, framed by his corrupt superiors when he objected to massacring hordes of innocent people.
  • Carnival of Killers
  • The Cast Showoff: When Dynamo (Erland van Lidth) sings the aria from Act III of The Marriage of Figaro, he's actually singing in that scene. Presumably after he got cast, someone found out he could sing opera and decided they had to throw that in somewhere.
  • Chainsaw Good: Buzzsaw.
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: A given with Arnie, Richards is able to perform such feats of strength as ripping Amber's weights bench out of the floor and carrying a girder unaided.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: Sort of applies to Killian. When it becomes likely that Richards and Amber may actually survive, he airs fake footage to make the viewers believe they've been killed so they won't be viewed as heroes. Naturally, he does not prosper.
  • Condemned Contestant
  • Crapsaccharine World
  • Crazy-Prepared: Either the network has jumpsuits with every name possible stitched onto them on standby or they can stitch names on them really quickly, as is the case with Amber. On the other hand, there are electronic sewing machines even in the 80s that can embroider a name onto a given piece of apparel in minutes. It's no surprise that the writers of the movie think technology will progress to the point where it's possible in seconds Twenty Minutes into the Future.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: How the stalkers want to kill Richards, only for Richards to give them A Taste Of Their Own Medicine at every turn.
  • Deadly Game
  • Digital Head Swap: In-universe.
  • Diving Save: When Ben Richards and Laughlin are attacked by Buzzsaw, Laughlin pushes Richards out of the way of Buzzsaw's attack and is mortally wounded by Buzzsaw's chainsaw attack.
  • Do Not Adjust Your Set: "KILLIAN IS LYING TO YOU!"
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Captain Freedom as a Stalker genuinely believes in the Gladiator Code and chooses to walk off the show when Killian has him suit up in armor so that he can take on Ben Richards.
  • Exact Words: As one of the more legal-minded executives at the studio points out when one of his colleagues tells Damon he can't have Richards on the show because their contract doesn't permit them to host political prisoners, "Who's a political prisoner? He's still at large." Later, Damon mentions that he "pulled a few strings" to get Richards brought to him instead of back to prison; evidently he exploited this loophole to the fullest.
  • Explosive Leash: Richards and his fellow prisoners wear them in the military prison.
  • Fanservice: Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) exercising in lingerie.
  • Fashion Dissonance: The Running Man's "It's Showtime!" dancers, who are a riot of spandex and big hair, firmly placing them in the 80's fashion era.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Killian being a typically flat example.
  • Fire-Breathing Weapon: Fireball's flamethrower/jet pack combo.
  • Flamethrower Backfire: One of the Stalkers, appropriately named Fireball, dual wields flame throwers. They end up being used to kill him.
  • Flat Character: The majority of the antagonists. Killian himself explains that the reason why he has framed and got a lot of innocent people's lives destroyed or killed is simply to provide America entertainment. "America loves entertainment!"
  • Foreign Language Tirade: Amber would speak in Spanish whenever she gets angry or frightened.
  • Funny Background Event: A poster in Killian's office shows a cruise ship on fire and the title The Hate Boat.
  • Future Imperfect: A TV equivalent; it's implied that a lot of TV shows have been forgotten thanks to the totalitarian government's control of the entertainment networks, and on two occasions an older character makes a reference to an old TV show (Gilligan's Island and Star Trek) that falls flat.
  • Gaia's Lament: Earth's resources are severely drained in this world.
  • Game Show Host: Killian. Lampshaded to a certain degree by being played by Richard Dawson, who has been characterized at times as a bit of an egotist behind the scenes.
  • Gas Mask Mooks: All the guards in the detention zone at the start wear gas masks and protective goggles. They do have a good reason however, considering all the unhealthy stuff in the air from the old industrial complex. The prisoners are less fortunate.
  • The Gimmick: The Stalkers are basically pro wrestlers cranked Up to Eleven, each with a Weapon of Choice to suit their onscreen persona. Many of them were played by real pro wrestlers.
  • Guns Do Not Work That Way: A minor example and difficult to spot for most people, but when Richards cocks a Steyr AUG before the final battle, he assists the cocking handle forward. Doing so is a good way to cause a misfeed unless you use the silent cocking button, which Richards doesn't.
  • Groin Attack: Multiple examples. The most notorious being how Richards disposes of Buzzsaw with his own chainsaw.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Captain Freedom genuinely believes in the Warrior's Code, considers himself a modern gladiator, and when he sees the psychopathic Killian ignore all rules once again, he eventually snaps and angrily walks away from it all. Sven, Killian's bodyguard, switches sides, too, although in his case it may be simply a Bodyguard Betrayal for all the abuse that Killian had presumably given him.
  • Heroic Sacrifice
    • Laughlin shoves Richards out of the way of and is mortally wounded by Buzzsaw's attack.
    • Also, Richards agrees to be a contestant because Killian threatens to use his friends as contestants instead… which of course they do anyways.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Each Stalker is killed with his own weapon. Killian himself is doomed by being launched into the Zone, as he had done to so many before.
  • Home Game: The board game version of the show given to members of the Running Man studio audience.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game
  • Idiot Ball: Even though Richards was already throughly discredited as "The Butcher of Bakersfield", the Government still insists on making up murders at the airport in order to blame them on him. This is what convinces Amber that he was framed and ultimately causes her to discover the truth. Keeping the unedited footage around was pretty dumb too.
    • Fascist, but Inefficient: Some of the reason for this seems to be that the totalitarian society's enforcers are distracted by their own Bread and Circuses. We hear the guards making small talk about how they never miss an episode of the Running Man, Amber Mendez excuses her purchases of black market clothing (when Richards discovers it) by saying "C'mon, everyone does it!" and the unedited footage may well have been retained through sheer laziness, i.e. the TV station's bureaucrats never throw anything away.
  • I Know Madden Kombat: The hockey-themed hunter "Sub-Zero".
  • I'll Be Back: "Only in a rerun."
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Richards' faked death at the hands of Captain Freedom.
  • Instant Soprano: Ben Richards shoves the blade of Buzzsaw's titular weapon into his groin area, causing him to emit a scream that quickly goes from manly to high pitched.
  • Intimidation Demonstration: Each of the Stalkers shows off the use of his weapon when he's introduced to the studio audience.
  • Ironic Echo: Multiple examples involving Killian. Particularly this one:
    Killian (to Richards after he's been recaptured): Hello, cutie pie. One of us is in deep trouble.
    Richards (to Killian back on the game show set in the climax): Hello, cutie pie. One of us is in deep trouble.
  • Jet Pack: Used by the stalker Fireball.
  • Karmic Death: All the Stalkers except Captain Freedom.
    • Killian, too. Only he never quite makes it to the game zone: The rocket sled he rides in crashes into a billboard outside the studios and explodes on impact; trapped inside, Killian (presumably) burns to death.
  • Large Ham: The Stalkers in general are, by the very nature of their work, over-the-top performers akin to professional wrestlers.
    • Dynamo is worth a special mention. A fat man with blinking lights all over him, driving after you in a go-kart, whilst singing opera.
    • Killian as well.
  • Lightning Gun: Dynamo's "Electrical Launcher".
  • Manipulative Editing
  • Meaningful Name / Names to Run Away From Really Fast: No one — no one — with a name like 'Damon Killian' is ever going to grow up to be anything but a villain.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Dweezil Zappa's character, Stevie, is named after Stevie Nicks.
    • Which can also be an Actor Allusion to the leader of the underground movement, played by Mick Fleetwood.
  • Neck Lift: Captain Freedom does this to Amber during the fake fight scene. It isn't the real Amber. It's falsified footage created by Killian.
  • Neck Snap: Captain Freedom does this to Amber while performing a Neck Lift on her. Again, it's fake, done to make viewers think she's been killed.
  • Noble Demon: It's made clear Captain Freedom actually has some sense honor and believes in the Gladiators Code. He shows increasing signs of frustration with Killian's more underhanded tactics. Oh he still wants to take on and kill Richards, but face-to-face like warriors should. The final straw proves to be being in a gimmicky outfit rather than facing his opponent like a warrior and it ends with him walking away in disgust.
  • Non-Lethal Warfare: A net-firing gun is used to capture Richards at the airport.
  • Not Worth Killing: "No, I won't kill a helpless human being…not even sadistic scum…like you."
  • Oh, Crap: When Killian realizes that Richards has survived and has now cornered him in the studio. Again, when the studio guard, who had stood loyally at his side for all this time, abandons him to tend to other business. And finally, when Richards grabs him and throws him in the rocket sled, sending him into the game zone (and ultimately, to his death).
  • Oppressive States of America
  • Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future: Apparently, wireframe computer graphics are state-of-the-art in 2019.
  • Out of the Inferno: After Ben ignites a barrel of flammable material, Fireball just strolls through the flame.
  • Peek-A-Boo Corpse: The previous season winners. Fireball secretly murdered them with his flamethrower while Killian falsified footage of their prize holiday.
  • The Pen Is Mightier
  • Please Select New City Name: At the airport, in the background you can hear an announcement about a flight to "Mandelaburg" – presumably the future name of Johannesburg, It was even more ironic at the time the film was released, since with apartheid still in power and Nelson Mandela still in prison, the likelihood of that happening was seen as nil.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner
    "Need a lift?"
    • Before he sets Fireball on fire.
    "How 'bout a light?"
    • Also, before killing Buzzsaw with his own chainsaw.
    "That's OK, keep it!".
    • When he's about to launch Killian to his doom.
    Killian: "You bastard! Drop dead!"
    Richards: "I don't do requests."
  • Public Execution: Criminals are executed by being hunted to their deaths on TV, with a promise of freedom if they survive.
  • Quirky Mini Boss Squad: The Stalkers certainly qualify. They aren't developed beyond their special attacks and gimmicks and have very hammy moments, but presumably have been competent enough to never have died until Ben Richards shows up.
  • Race Lift: Killian is black in the book.
  • Red Baron: See The Butcher above.
  • Red Shirt
  • Released to Elsewhere: Whitman, Price, and Haddad. Last season's winners. "No, last season's losers."
  • La Résistance
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: A can of pop costs $6, and the vending machines don't accept bills.
  • Run for the Border
    • Played with when Richards tries to flee to Hawaii, instead of trying to escape the country entirely. It's implied he intends to go farther afield once he's reached his destination. However since Richards is captured we never actually learn why he wanted to go there specifically, largely because he was smart enough not to to tell Amber his next move.
    • It may be also Shout-Out to Heinlein's If This Goes On… where someone pretends to be trying to escape to Hawaii, which is a separate country, as part of a plan to make his pursuers think he's dead. Hawaii being separate country within the setting means this trope could be very well be being played straight.
  • The Scapegoat: Richards is blamed for the government-ordered massacre he tried to prevent.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Buzzsaw when Richards cuts his balls. He actually sounds like a soprano singer.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right: Richards, when he refuses to fire on the unarmed crowd.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Sven, the studio's head of security and Killian's bodyguard, realizes that he's been lied to one too many times and – when he is ordered to take out Richards, leaves the studio.
  • Shout-Out: "Mr Spock, you have the com."
  • Show Within a Show: The TV show.
  • Sissy Villain: Killian.
  • Skunk Stripe: Fireball.
  • Smarmy Host: Damon Killian
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Ben Richards, in the biggest of the film's many, many changes from the novel.
  • The Stinger: The show's announcer does a voice over at the end of the credits, listing the game's sponsors and inviting people to participate by sending in their name and address, "then go out and do something really despicable!".
  • Throw a Barrel at It: Ben Richards does it to Fireball.
  • Trashcan Bonfire: The outdoor scenes with crowds betting on the game.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Another possible hiding place for that footage. (See Ass Shove.) In Amber's words, when asked about it:
    Amber [Smirks]: "That's none of your business."
  • Villain Ball: Killian backstabs Richards and puts his fellow escapees on the show even after promising Richards that he would not. This is ultimately his undoing. Without the two rebels, Richards never would have found the hideout and escaped the arena. Without Richards, the rebels would have been immediately massacred by the stalkers.
  • We Can Rule Together: Not quite, but same idea. When Killian must accept that it is actually possible that Richards might win, he offers him a job as a Stalker. Richards refuses. (Well, more like tells him where he can stick it, but it's still a refusal.)
  • We Will Not Use Photoshop in the Future: The government uses edited footage to frame Richards. Later, the producers edit footage of Richards being killed in an attempt to salvage his victory over the Stalkers. This winds up backfiring in the latter because they make Richards and Amber look weak compared to their actual selves in the game. When the rebellion manage to play the true tape of the massacre and Killian denies it being true. The crowd, particularly an old lady who rooted for Richards, turn against him cause they've seen Richards in action and know what he's like by now.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Captain Freedom. He quit partway through the film because he became bitter about what the game had become. Granted, it's very anticlimactic, but serves as possible foreshadowing for Sven doing the same thing later at a key moment.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: Awesomely thrown back in Dynamo's face by Amber, of all people.
    Dynamo:Thought it was pretty funny out in the zone, didn't you? What's the matter, bitch? Why aren't you laughing?
    Amber: Because there's nothing funny about a dickless moron with a battery up his ass.
  • Wicked Cultured: Dynamo the bruiser, the killer, the rapist, the opera singer…
  • Win Your Freedom
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: Ben Richards. This actually gets him in a heap of trouble when he refused to follow orders to mow down hungry protesters.
  • Your Head A Splode: If Chico had just waited 20 more seconds at the beginning of the movie…
  • Zeerust: All over the place, particularly in the hairstyles and fashions (mullets and shoulder pads, for example, will apparently never go out of style). Lesser examples exist, such as the horribly dated graphics seen on all the in-universe computer screens and the pseudo-computeresque font used in the "KILLIAN IS LYING TO YOU" clip.
    • Technology Marches On: Most notable with the "tapes" which are shown to be in containers about the size of 3.5" floppy disks. Ironically, these are actually much larger than some of the Micro-SD cards we have right now which can easily store an entire DVD image containing both sides of this movie's double-sided DVD (containing both a full-screen and wide-screen version of the movie, and lots of extras). Some of those cards even have enough storage space that they could easily fit an uncompressed version of this movie, never mind the few minutes of digital footage from Richards' last mission these "tapes" contained.