The year is 2017 and American society is ruled by the iron fist of the totalitarian government. One lawman, a helicopter pilot called Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), was nearing a civil unrest of unarmed civilians when he was ordered by his bosses to open fire on them - he refused and in the ensuing scuffle was subdued and later framed for the people's deaths. Eighteen months later and Richards is in a prison camp, but he's not planning to stay much longer, in fact he and a few fellow jailbirds are all set to make a break for freedom. But Richards doesn't realise that by doing so he is about to get involved with the authorities in the flashiest manner possble...
In the same year as Predator making it big as a hit for Schwarzengger, he made The Running Man, a lesser project that acted as a broad satire of the media-saturated eighties by developing the then-current television trends (and even political ones) to their logical conclusions. Although there are no signs of gameshows where the contestants risk their lives yet, it's this kidding aspect that was the most successful part of the film; it certainly wasn't Schwarzenegger's poor one liners which showed as a comedian that his character couldn't resist the obvious.
Ostensibly this was based on Stephen King's pseudonymous Richard Bachman novel of the same name, although those that read it had their doubts, and yet more who had seen the French adaptation of Robert Sheckley's The Prize of Peril were even less convinced, but that film was so obscure at the time that any complaints of rip-offs were not as vocal as they might have been. While director Paul Michael Glaser, working from Steven E. de Souza's script, manages an appropriately tacky look for the game show sequences, this insinuates itself into the rest of the film, leaving it looking decidedly cheesy and low rent throughout, in spite of the cash spent on it.
What is this game show? It's the society's version of the old gladiatorial arena of Ancient Roman days, with criminals, or simply enemies of the police state, sent through a tunnel (they really like that zooming along the tunnel effect, it gets repeated about fifty times) to a danger zone where they are likely to be killed off by a large man in a costume more often as not. Once Richards is recaptured, as a notorious murderer (supposedly) he is sent onto the Running Man show, which is hosted by Damon Killian, played in one of many odd casting choices by real life Family Feud host Richard Dawson. In this case, the casting is apt and Dawson's smooth cruelty steals the film.
Of course, they're making a big mistake in plonking Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger right down in the middle of a gameshow where the object is to kill, because he was responsible for more movie deaths that decade than practically any other actor. He's like a kid in a candy store when he gets the chance to off various bad guys, including Jim Brown with a flamethrower and Erland van Lidth zapping bolts of electricity around the place. As a result, the excitement levels are low, which is due to no one in their right mind believing that Richards won't escape alive and save the day, but incidentals like the odd celeb appearance, including as they do Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa, and the cheap looking TV shows regularly spotted throughout, can keep the idle mind watching. It's a middling effort really, very much in the shadow of Robocop as far as nailing its targets goes and far more hypocritical in its entertainment objectives. Music by Harold Faltermeyer.