Like Paul Walker’s character in it, Running Scared is a lot smarter than it looks. Unfortunately, it spends as much time being dumb as acting dumb, making for an experience that can be as frustrating as it is entertaining. The film is basically three different movies: One, a straightforward crime drama, probably its strongest suit. Two, a satire of the genre, working on many levels from Peckinpah-esque examination of the male psyche to urban Grimm fairy tale. And, sadly, three, a genuinely clunky thriller. Unfortunately, you never know which you’ll get from scene to scene, or even moment to moment.
Paul Walker plays Joey Gazelle (Get it? He runs. This would be the less clever part.), a family man in suburban Jersey who also happens to work for the local mob. After a deal gone wrong ends up with a lot of dead people, some of them dirty cops, Joey is charged with his usual task of disposing of the gun that killed said cops. Joey, however, has been stashing the guns he’s supposed to have ditched as an “insurance policy.” When his son Nicky (Alex Neuberger) and his neighbor’s kid Oleg (Cameron Bright) witness him adding the weapon to his collection, Oleg sees an opportunity to settle the score with his abusive father, Anzor (Karel Roden). Article continues below
Soon, Anzor is wounded, Oleg is on the run, and Joey has one night to get the gun back or end up dead at the hands of his own people. Since Nicky might know where to find Oleg, what ensues is the worst Take Your Kid To Work Day ever.
Writer/director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) displays an appetite for flashy camera tricks, but we’re not in Domino territory here, thank God. Unlike Tony Scott, Kramer shows some restraint and variety, but the frequent double exposures still wear thin. Just as often, though, he creates intimate spaces where his characters can interact, isolated from the surrounding chaos.
The writing varies from sly satire to witless implausibility. Chazz Palminteri’s character, a dirty cop, steps into more than one commercial parody in the film, making a passing reference to the actor’s own Vanilla Coke ad in the process. At the same time the film relies far too much on coincidence to further the plot.
The performances here are all adequate. Walker shows that he can do a convincing Jersey accent. Vera Farmiga’s performance as Joey’s wife is uneven, but effective when it really counts. Bright pulls off the eerie thousand-yard stare of a kid who’s seen too much at home, and so is unfazed by the monsters he encounters in the real world.
The deliberate nature of some of Kramer’s choices suggest something bubbling under the surface. He sets a key action scene in a hockey rink, a place of socially acceptable violence. Anzor has a tattoo of John Wayne on his back, and carries an obsession with the actor that might serve as a commentary on film violence. References to ultra-violent films like Scarface surface from time to time. It’s clear that Kramer’s trying to say something, but what?
Unlike Revolver, which pretentiously aspires to levels it never achieves, Running Scared aspires to levels it occasionally achieves without ever taking itself too seriously, and while being massively entertaining even when it’s not making a whole lot of sense. Kramer’s sophomore effort shows flashes of brilliance but smacks of an artist still working out what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. It may not be Peckinpah, but if you’re a fan of the genre, it’s probably worth a look.