Can genre-buster Edgar Wright breathe new life into The Running Man?

Estimated read time 4 min read

Why bother remaking much-loved 80s and 90s science fiction movies? Frankly it never ends well. Len Wiseman’s 2012 reworking of Total Recall, with a baffled-looking Colin Farrell taking over from Arnold Schwarzenegger as the amnesiac dreamer of futuristic secret agent dreams, struggled to capture the bombast of the superbly trashy Paul Verhoeven original, and never even made it to mutant-heavy Mars. The maverick Dutch director’s 1987 version of RoboCop is a gloriously effective corporate satire masquerading as an all-guns-blazing actioner, but its 2014 remake from José Padilha (despite a stellar cast) seemed to smooth off all those rough, wonderfully stop-motion fuelled sci-fi edges and somehow lose something in the process.

How, then, should we greet the news that another of Arnie’s nutty sci-fi romps, 1987’s The Running Man, is to get the remake treatment? It really ought to be a fresh excuse to chew on one’s own kidneys at the horrifying banality of Hollywood in 2024, but there is something about the prospect of a fresh visit to dystopian future Los Angeles that feels surprisingly hopeful.

In part this is because the attached director is no less than Edgar Wright, a film-maker who is anything but a desperate hired gun ready to take on anything if the suits hand him enough greenbacks. But it’s also because Paul Michael Glaser’s original film is barely remembered these days, unless it’s for a succession of terrible Arnie puns such as the not-so-legendary: “He had to split” (after cutting an enemy in half) or for the contribution it made to sample-loving 90s rave culture.

Wright’s version is reportedly based on the 1982 Stephen King novel (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) rather than Glaser’s corny and poorly acted original, which might just be its saving grace. The idea of the British film-maker reimagining a genre that has been explored so thoroughly by films such as The Hunger Games series is intriguing because it is impossible to imagine him not doing something different with it. This is a director who, throughout his career, has taken the path least trodden through genre film-making, from virtually inventing the zombie romcom with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead to glamming up psychological horror with his swingingly insouciant Last Night in Soho. Why else would Wright want to take this on if he’s not going to sprinkle sparkles of joy and vibrancy all over The Running Man?

Speaking on the Happy Sad Confused podcast in December, Wright said he was keen to work on the project because Glaser (otherwise known as Starsky from Starsky and Hutch and … well … precisely zero decent movies as a film-maker) “didn’t really adapt the book”. He said: “Even as a teenager when I saw the Schwarzenegger film I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t like the book at all!’ And I think, ‘Nobody’s done that book.’ So when that came up, I was thinking, and [producer] Simon Kinberg says, ‘Do you have any interest in The Running Man?’ I said, ‘You know what? I’ve often thought that that book is something crying out to be adapted.’”

So where will Wright go with the remake? The original film chews more furniture than a quabble of woodlice let loose in an Ikea stockroom, while the novel itself is a much more sombre and socially conscious affair, leaning heavily into a future society in which the poor are forced to entertain their fellow citizens in a cross-the-world dash for the chance to earn a life out of poverty. Ben Richards, the titular character played by Arnie in Glaser’s film, is a blacklisted tradesman desperate to secure funds to buy medicine for his sick daughter, his wife having been forced into prostitution by penury. This contrasts just a little bit with the film version, in which Schwarzenegger was a police helicopter pilot who is forced on to the Running Man gameshow as a criminal after he is falsely accused of shooting into a crowd of unarmed protestors at a food riot.

There is plenty of source material here for Wright to satirise, or simply critique, such as America’s inability to look after its poor and sick. We will probably not see anyone garrotted or chainsawed in two, and the chances are there won’t be pun-fuelled quips after another baddie is murdered. But what the new version lacks in bombast, it might just make up for in smarts.


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