By 2017, the global economy has collapsed and American society has become a totalitarian police station, censoring all cultural activity. The government pacifies the populace by broadcasting a number of game shows in which 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” and certain death for a chance to be pardoned and set free.
Two years later Ben Richards, a military pilot who was convicted of a massacre he actually tried to prevent, escapes from a labor camp with other inmates and flees to a shanty town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Declining an offer to join a resistance movement, Richards instead 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 attempts to flee to Hawaii with Amber as a hostage, but she alerts airport security and Richards is caught and taken to the ICS studios. Killian coerces him to compete in The Running Man with the threat that if he declines, his two weaker escapee friends—Laughlin and Weiss—will be put on the show instead. Richards complies, but as the show begins, Killian reveals that Laughlin and Weiss have been captured and enrolled as runners anyway. Richards and his friends are attacked by the first stalker, Subzero, who is eventually killed by Richards and Laughlin, shocking the show's audience. While continuing to evade the barbaric stalkers, Laughlin and Weiss search for the network's uplink facilities, which are within the game zone.
Meanwhile, Amber begins to question the media's veracity after watching a falsified news report on Richards' capture. Amber discovers the truth about the massacre, but she is captured and subsequently sent into the game zone, where she encounters Richards and the others. The runners split up, each pair pursued by a different stalker. Laughlin is mortally wounded by the stalker Buzzsaw, who Richards subsequently kills. Weiss and Amber are successful in locating the uplink system and learning the access codes, but Weiss is electrocuted by the stalker Dynamo. Amber's screams lead Richards to her, and as the two evade the stalker, Dynamo's buggy flips, trapping him inside. Richards then stuns the audience by merely pinning Dynamo in the vehicle, proclaiming that he will not kill a helpless man.
Amber and Richards return to Laughlin, who reveals that the resistance has a hideout within the game zone. Back at the ICS studio, Killian sees Richards' popularity growing, with viewers betting for Richards to win when they are supposed to bet only on the stalkers. Off-camera, Killian offers Richards a job as a stalker, which he furiously declines. As the next stalker, Fireball, pursues Amber and Richards into an abandoned factory, Amber inadvertently finds the charred bodies of the previous season's "winning" (and, supposedly, pardoned) runners. Fireball attempts to kill Amber, but Richards rescues her and kills Fireball with his own weaponry. Running out of options, a frustrated Killian uses computer-generated image to fake the deaths of Richards and Amber in the final match of the episode, a falsified battle against retired stalker Captain Freedom.
In the game zone, Richards and Amber are caught by the resistance and taken to their hideout, where they learn of their “deaths” on the show. Using the access codes provided by Amber, the resistance takes over the ICS satellite. Richards leads the rebels to the ICS studios where they seize the control room, allowing the resistance broadcast. Richards then heads to the main studio floor, shocking the live and at-home audiences who had watched him supposedly die. Amber encounters Dynamo, but she kills him when an errant gunshot sets off the sprinkler system, electrocuting him when the water hits his electrically-powered suit. Richards confronts Killian, now shamed and disgraced before those watching. He explains that he had created the show for huge ratings and to appease American viewers' love for television, action and violence. Ignoring the excuse, Richards sends Killian into the game zone aboard a rocket sled, which flies into a billboard and explodes, killing him instantly, much to the delight of the live television audience. The film ends as Ben and Amber share a kiss as they walk off the studio.