2006Director: Wayne Kramer
Cast: Paul Walker, Cameron Bright, Chazz Palminteri
here do I begin? Running Scared plays like a two-hour trailer for several films that may or may not actually exist. It is an exorcise in over-direction, convoluted screenwriting, and gratuitous violence that approaches the brink of genius with its decadent excess, joining the ranks of such films as Dreamcatcher and Double Team (which I wholeheartedly endorse, if for all the wrong reasons).
Don’t misunderstand me here. If you’re the type of person who only appreciates films that seek to enlighten or provide a certain sense of cerebral satisfaction, then stay as far away from Running Scared as you can get. Here’s a film that shakes at the foundations of accepted film theory and would have Bazin rolling over in his grave. Yet, I’d be willing to wager that if I took the same audience to see Jean Renoir’s The River (which is also currently playing in theaters here in Chicago), the majority of them would walk out of Running Scared feeling more satisfied; a statistic that at one time would have alarmed me, but that I’ve recently developed a callous indifference toward.
By all means, the film just shouldn’t work. It exemplifies Tony Scott stylistic overkill and a Tarantino-esque overcrowded narrative, minus the wit. In a sense, the camera and plot never cease to be in motion. Not once does director Wayne Kramer (no, not the same Wayne Kramer from the MC5) allow a steady or fixed shot for the audience to recover (or perhaps recoil) from the violence and gore splattered on the screen. Normally, such an approach would frustrate me, but here you get the sense that as the narrative plunges deeper and deeper into absurdity, even just a brief moment of calm would destroy the manic brilliance it’s achieved.
It’s not that the film is terribly complex at its core. A singular storyline holds it all together. It opens with the oh-so-conventional drug deal gone bad (complete with slow motion shots of people propelled backward by shotgun blasts to the chest) in which the masked villains brutally killed turn out to be dirty cops. Joey (Paul Walker), family man and an all-around nice guy criminal, who was present at the shooting, finds himself charged with the task of disposing of the “hot gun.” His plans are put on hold, however, when he stops in at his home, inexplicably, to make love to his wife on top of a washing machine and eat dinner with his son and convalescent father. In the meantime, he stashes the gun in the basement. Unknown to him, his son’s Russian friend Oleg (played by Cameron Bright, the same kid who made love to Nicole Kidman in Birth) witnesses this and while the family eats their dinner, he sneaks away back to his house and shoots his father with it, wounding him significantly.
For the rest of the movie, everyone will be in pursuit of young Oleg and the gun. Joey needs it because if the police get hold of it they can connect him and his gang to the murders of the three officers. That means that any bullets fired he must collect as well (yes, this includes the one lodged in the father’s chest). In addition, if his gangster friends find out that Joey failed to dispose of the gun, they will not only kill him, but Oleg as well. To make matters worse, when Joey sneaks into to the hospital to retrieve one of the bullets, a certain Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri), one of the dirty cops who survived the shootout, recognizes him. Since Rydell can’t simply arrest Joey without bringing his own crimes to light, he sends a pack of hired goons on his trail to retrieve the gun.
I dare not say any more about the plot so as not to spoil anything. The real enjoyment here is to watch, with absolute stupefaction, as the film unfolds in all its jaw-dropping absurdity. What could have been reduced to a formulaic action film becomes a manic parade of freakishly cartoonish characters, including Oleg’s father, whose obsession with John Wayne borders on psychotic; a Russian mob boss that seems plucked from a Guy Richie film; a creepy married couple whose “play room” many kids enter but never leave; and a bum that more closely resembles a Ring Wraith from Lord of the Rings.
Without giving away too much about the ending, I can’t help but hear echoes of Jules Dassin’s Rififi. Normally I’d chalk such perceptions up to over-analysis on my part, but with a film this subversively smart, it’s a distinct possibility that Kramer knew what he was doing (lest we forget that he did, in fact, direct The Cooler). Anyone who, in this day and age, ends a film with a freeze frame has to be secretly winking at the audience, unless Kramer really is that naïve.