Running Scared (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Running Scared feels like Tony Scott on barbiturates. From tone to approach, it's like a Scott-helmed movie, but the tendency to show off is limited, the camera movements are less frantic, and the editing occasionally allows shots to last for more than a second. The result is a picture that retains coherence to go along with its pile-driver intensity. With a complex plot that unspools with surprising clarity, Running Scared displays a reckless intensity. In retrospect, a lot of what the film offers falls apart, but the filmmakers do their best to use adrenaline to keep us from thinking too much during the experience.

When I first heard that Running Scared was a "Paul Walker" movie, I winced. The kinds of films Walker is associated with are not normally representative of the fare I enjoy. But the man's work here is a revelation. This isn't the Paul Walker whose good looks and stiff performances have made him a king of PG-13. Here, he's gritty, grungy, shows a full spectrum of emotion, and displays more than a scintilla of ability. It took less than a minute for me to stop thinking of him as Paul Walker and accept him as Joey Gazelle, low-level mobster.

The film opens with a drug buy gone bad. A group of masked crooked cops, led by the grizzled Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri), attempts to steal the money and the drugs, and a gunfight explodes. Aside from Rydell, the lone survivors are Joey and two of his associates. Joey is given the job of disposing of the gun that killed the cops. Instead of ditching it, however, he hides it in a compartment in his basement. His covert activity is observed by his son, Nicky (Alex Neuberger), and the boy next door, Oleg (Cameron Bright). Oleg pilfers the gun with the intent of putting an end to his step-father's abuse. When he fires the weapon, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, there's a way to connect the mobsters to the dead cops. It's up to Joey to find Oleg before the cops do - and before his mobster allies turn on him for not doing his job. Caught in the middle is Joey's wife, Teresa (Vera Farmiga), who's frightened for and furious at her husband.

Generally speaking, Running Scared is a wild and entertaining ride, even if the level of coincidence and contrivance sets off alarm bells. While this creates opportunities for twists and double-backs, it becomes a bit too much. Some of what writer/director Wayne Kramer does is clever; some is unnecessary. It can be distracting when a viewer becomes aware that a filmmaker is manipulating the chessboard. Despite Running Scared's high energy level, the attentive audience member will never become so completely distracted that he or she loses sight of this.

The film's structure forces the majority of the action to be presented in flashback. I'm not fond of this "hip" narrative technique. It has become stale through overuse. One could argue that there's more reason for it to be used here than in many of the dozens of other movies and TV shows it has infected, but there would be benefits to allowing the story to unfold chronologically. For non-linear storytelling to work, there needs to be a compelling reason to use it. I'm not sure the payoff in Running Scared qualifies.

As much of a revelation as Paul Walker's acting is, he isn't the strongest performer in the film. That distinction belongs to Vera Farmiga. Despite having an extensive resume, I can't recall having previously noticed her, although she has appeared in a few movies I have seen. She received universally rave reviews and multiple film festival acting citations for Down to the Bone, a picture that never achieved distribution outside of New York and Los Angeles. Based on that, it should be no surprise that her work here is arresting. The children - Cameron Bright and Alex Neuberger - are solid, and the villains (Chazz Palminteri, Karel Roden) ooze malice.

As he did with his previous movie, The Cooler, Kramer pushes the envelope of the MPAA's R rating. In addition to the orgy of violence, there's an abundance of profanity, several full frontal nude shots, and an oral sex scene that's less explicit than it seems to be. Considering the MPAA's prudish tendencies, it's surprising that Running Scared wasn't slapped with an NC-17. But Kramer got away with some stuff, and the result gives his film more punch than a neutered version would have. If you like kinetic movies about crime, criminals, and all sorts of bad behavior, Running Scared will catch and hold your attention.

Running Scared (United States, 2006)

Director: Wayne Kramer
Cast: Paul Walker, Cameron Bright, Vera Farmiga, Chazz Palminteri, Johnny Messner, Alex Neuberger, Karel Roden, Ivana Milicevic
Screenplay: Wayne Kramer
Cinematography: Jim Whitaker
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2006-02-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1