Original director Andrew Davis was fired one week into filming and replaced by Glaser. Schwarzenegger has stated this was a "terrible decision", as Glaser "shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes". Schwarzenegger believes this hurt the movie. Paula Abdul is credited with the choreography of the Running Man dance troupe.
In 2017, after a worldwide economic collapse, the United States has become a totalitarian police state, censoring all cultural activity. The U.S. government pacifies the populace by broadcasting game shows where convicted criminals fight for their lives, including the gladiator-style The Running Man, hosted by the ruthless Damon Killian, where "runners" attempt to evade "stalkers", armed mercenaries, around a large arena, and near-certain death for a chance to be pardoned by the state.
By 2019, Ben Richards, a police helicopter pilot wrongly convicted of a massacre during a food riot in Bakersfield, California, escapes from a labor camp with two resistance fighters, Weiss and Laughlin, and finds refuge at a resistance camp headed by their leader, Mic. Instead of joining the resistance, Richards seeks shelter at his brother's apartment. He finds it is now occupied by Amber Mendez, a composer for ICS, the network that broadcasts The Running Man. Richards asks Mendez about the whereabouts of his brother, and she says that he was taken for "re-education."
Taking Amber hostage, Richards attempts to flee to Hawaii, but she alerts airport security and Richards is captured and taken to ICS. There, Killian coerces him into participating in The Running Man in exchange for Laughlin and Weiss not participating, but learns that Killian had enrolled them as runners anyway. He swears revenge.
As the game begins, Richards and his friends are attacked by the first stalker, "Subzero," but they fight back, with Richards killing Subzero – the first time a stalker has ever died on the show. Then Laughlin and Weiss search for the network's uplink facilities, which they realize are in the game zone. Amber sees a falsified news report on Richards' capture and, suspicious of the media's veracity, does some investigating. She learns the truth about the massacre, but is captured by her own ICS colleagues and sent into the game zone.
The runners split up, each pair pursued by a different stalker. "Buzzsaw" critically wounds Laughlin, but is killed by Richards. Weiss and Amber locate the uplink and learn the access codes, but "Dynamo" finds them and electrocutes Weiss. Amber's screams lead Richards to her, and, as the two evade Dynamo, the stalker's buggy flips, trapping him inside. Refusing to kill a helpless opponent, Richards leaves Dynamo alive. He and Amber then return to Laughlin, who, before dying, says that the resistance has a hideout within the game zone.
Back at ICS, Killian sees Richards' popularity growing, with viewers betting on him instead of the stalkers. Off-camera, Killian tries to offer Richards a job as a stalker, but, when Richards refuses, Killian sends the next stalker, "Fireball." Fireball chases them into an abandoned factory, where Amber discovers the decomposing corpses of the previous seasons' "winners" – realizing that they were killed by Fireball and their victory was faked. Fireball goes after Amber, but Richards rescues her and kills him using his own weaponry.
Frustrated and running out of options, Killian seeks "Captain Freedom," a retired stalker, to kill them. However, when Freedom refuses, the network creates digital body doubles of Freedom, Richards and Amber, which are then used to fake Richards´ and Amber´s deaths on screen. In the game zone, Richards and Amber are found by Mic and taken to the resistance's hideout, where they learn of their "deaths." Using the access codes, the rebels get into ICS' control room, broadcasting footage that exonerates Richards and reveals the truth about the game's previous "winners". As Richards heads to the main studio floor, shocking the audience who had watched him supposedly die, Amber fights and kills Dynamo, the last remaining stalker.
Richards confronts Killian after having dealt with security, who tried to kill him and the audience to cover up everything, not knowing it was being broadcast. Killian begs for his life, saying he created the show to appease the U.S. love of reality television and televised violence. In response, Richards decides to give the audience what they want right now – sending Killian to the game zone in a rocket sled. The sled hits a Cadre Cola billboard featuring Killian himself and explodes, killing Killian to the delight of the audience. Richards and Amber then romantically walk out of the studio.Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards
María Conchita Alonso as Amber Mendez
Richard Dawson as Damon Killian
Yaphet Kotto as William Laughlin
Marvin J. McIntyre as Harold Weiss
Mick Fleetwood as Mic
Professor Toru Tanaka as Professor Subzero
Gus Rethwisch as Eddie "Buzzsaw" Bitowski
Jesse Ventura as Captain Freedom
Jim Brown as Fireball
Erland Van Lidth De Jeude as Dynamo; this was his final role before his death
Dweezil Zappa as Stevie
Kurt Fuller as Tony
Rodger Bumpass as Phil Hillton
Sven-Ole Thorsen as Sven
Karen Leigh Hopkins as Brenda
Edward Bunker as Lenny
Bryan Kestner as Med Tech
Anthony Pena as Valdez
Ken Lerner as Court Appointed Theatrical Agent
Dey Young as Amy
Dona Hardy as Mrs. McArdie
Lynne Stewart as Edith Wiggins
Bill Margolin as Leon
George P. Wilbur as Lieutenant Saunders
Thomas Rosales Jr. as Chico
Sondra Holt as Suzie Checkpoint
Roger Kern as Travel Pass Guard
Kim Pawlik as Newscaster
Lin Shaye as Propaganda Officer
Franco Columbu as Security Officer
Noah Sanchez as make-up artist
Although most critics praised Richard Dawson's performance as Killian, overall critical reaction to the film was positive to mixed. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a "fresh" certification, with a score of 63% based on reviews from 35 critics, with an average score of 5.5/10.
In The Running Man's opening weekend, it was released in 1,692 theaters and grossed $8,117,465. The film's total domestic gross was $38,122,105.
On the film's 30th anniversary in 2017, The Running Man was cited by a BBC journalist as having made accurate predictions about life in 2017, including an economic collapse, and offering an enduring critique of "American television culture". The film's writer Steven de Souza himself reinforced these predictions in a podcast interview with Motherboard.
The film's soundtrack was composed by Harold Faltermeyer and includes music by Richard Wagner, Jackie Jackson and John Parr who performed the main theme of the film called "Restless Heart", written and produced by Faltermeyer and played during the final scene and end-credits.
A video game based on the film was released for the MSX, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, and Atari ST. The game was developed by Emerald Software Ltd and published by Grandslam Entertainment. The 1990 video game Smash TV was inspired by The Running Man.