"I got to fucking do something about this. I can't have the kid fucking talking to the cops. You understand me? The fucking gun is on the street. This whole fucking goddamn thing is about to fucking blow up. If fucking Tommy or any of those fucking guys find out about it, I'm a dead man. You got to fucking help me."
Taking a heavy dose of influence from 1970's cop flicks as well as employing elements of modern action films (with a bit of Grimm's Fairy Tales also in the mix), Wayne Kramer's Running Scared is a hard-hitting, visceral, over-the-top extravaganza of blood and bullets that never lulls for a moment. With his second major movie, writer-director Kramer has delivered a non-stop action powerhouse packed with brutal violence, nightmarish caricatures, gun-toting kids, washing machine cunnilingus and enough f-bombs to make Martin Scorsese blush. It's also laden with pointless-yet-cool camera tricks and a crazily contorted plot structure. In a nutshell: Running Scared is an outrageous catalogue of action movie tricks presented by a director who's clearly having fun sampling from the genre salad bar. This ain't a movie for squeamish or those sensitive to gratuitous violence, but Running Scared is highly recommended if you have a taste for stylish filmmaking and gritty realism - it will leave you breathless.
The less written about this film's storyline, the better. In the simplest words possible, the story concerns a low-level gangster named Joey Gazelle (Walker). Following a botched drug deal that results in the deaths of several corrupt cops, Joey is tasked with disposing the guns used during the shootout. But before he can dispose of the guns, one of them is stolen by a young boy named Oleg (Bright) who uses it to shoot his abusive father (Roden). This gun becomes a MacGuffin which sets things in motion. Throughout the course of one night, Joey has to find the gun as well as Oleg. What follows can be described rather accurately as a feverish fairy tale told in the backdrop of a nihilistic and violent underworld.
Running Scared begins with an eye-popping, violent action sequence that's part True Romance, part Lethal Weapon and part The Matrix. With frenetic camera work, quick edits, slow motion and blood aplenty, this is an ardently visual sequence. Action fanatics will certainly be pleased with this opening which also establishes a fitting "anything can happen" atmosphere. After this shootout, the story slows down in order to develop the characters. Once Oleg uses the gun, however, the film detonates with an exhilarating, kinetic energy. From there, Running Scared becomes a succession of encounters, each one growing more bizarre and overblown. Much of this flick exists in an almost dream-like state, with sequences bordering on surrealism. The screen drips with sweat and blood with scene after scene of relentless brutality. Joey and Oleg's trip down the rabbit hole (if you will) is a despairingly dark odyssey of crime and suspense that culminates in an amazingly violent climax for which all bets are off.
Writer-director Wayne Kramer previously directed the somewhat low-key 2003 film The Cooler, hence Running Scared is a surprise in terms of style. For this film, Kramer adds a multitude of visual tricks that amplify the nightmarish atmosphere. Jim Whitaker's cinematography is equally astounding - with a desaturated colour palette of rich, grimy lustre and a number of magnificent, digitally-enhanced images, the filmmakers have achieved a true comic-book mood in the vein of Sin City and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This is all topped off with Mark Isham's top-flight score. Director Kramer also truly tests the boundaries for his film's R rating - on top of the orgy of ultra-violence, profanity is plentiful and there are a few full frontal nude shots.
Running Scared is not without its faults, however - the storyline is confusing, with plot holes and unbelievably contrivances galore. The dialogue alternates between outrageously profane and unbelievable, and a lot of the characters are cardboard. Kramer also employs pretty much every crime film cliché in existence. But the visuals are so enthralling, the pacing is so frenetic and the action is so involving that the film only falls apart in retrospect. There are probably too many endings as well, but Running Scared nevertheless remains a deliriously off-beat, psychotic action flick that entertains mightily.
Paul Walker is one of the movie's greatest strengths. The hard-edged, scared-to-death persona of Joey perfectly suits Walker - he does plenty of running, jumping, shooting and swearing with grit and believability backing up his actions. Even better, the actor manages to sell panic better than one would expect judging from his past work (movies like The Fast and the Furious). The children (Cameron Bright and Alex Neuberger) submit solid work, while the villains (such as Chazz Palminteri, Karel Roden and Johnny Messner) exude malice. As the ever-devoted wife of Joey, there's Vera Farmiga who steals every scene. She even gets a subplot of her own - one which clearly indicates that Running Scared is more of a pulpy comic book or a grim neo-fairytale.
Running Scared is best described as an adult fairytale since writer-director Wayne Kramer blends conventional action-adventure aesthetics with the fantastic and the mythic. So much crazy stuff occurs during the course of Joey's outlandish night that the film frequently feels like a "greatest hits" collection of action flick lunacy. Best of all, Running Scared moves at such a lightning pace that one can easily overlook the preposterousness of the whole enterprise.