A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 122 mins.
Joey Gazelle: Paul Walker / Oleg Yugorsky: Cameron Bright / Teresa Gazelle: Vera Farmiga
/ Detective Rydell: Chazz Palminteri / Tommy "Tombs" Perello: Johnny Messner
/ Sal "Gummy Bear" Franzone: Michael Cudlitz / Nicky Gazelle: Alex Neuberger
/ Mila Yugorsky: Ivana Milicevic
RUNNING SCARED is an unalterable romp into B-grade, exploitative trash of the most vile and repugnant variety. The film is loud, crude, lewd, and gut-wrenchingly foul and ill tempered. Its nihilism often made me feel squeamish and had me shifting uncomfortably in my seat more than I care to admit. The film is undeniably sordid, and for some odd reason, it's also gloriously entertaining, original, and kind of brilliantly constructed and executed.
RUNNING SCARED is pure sleaze, and for that I sort of loved it. Not only that, but it has a lead performance by Paul Walker that, heaven help me for writing this, is one of the more commanding and energized performances of intensity that I have seen in many a moon.
This is a thriller of Tarantino-esque hallucinogenic proportions. Imagine PULP FICTION or RESERVOIR DOGS on incredibly lethal dosages of amphetamines and you’ll get the idea. The film is unrelenting in how it assaults and torments its audience members. It does not just induce these sensations rather modestly; RUNNING SCARED takes great efforts to make us feel uneasy. Consider: throughout its 122 minute running time we are given scenes that involve body parts blasted away with shot guns; that involve young, pre-pubescent children being physically abused; that involve women that are slapped around and battered; that involve one man being interrogated by having half of his body set on fire; that involve men biting off body parts of other men and then spit the appendage back at them; that involve mob enforcers brutally torturing a helpless victim with slap shots to the face and mouth with glowing hockey pucks; and finally that involve two ghastly parental figures that chillingly manipulate small children for their own lewd purposes that may have many members of the audience leave in a panic. I counted four people leave the theatre by this latter point in the film.
However, RUNNING SCARED creates such a brutal, uncompromising, pulpy, and visceral thrill ride that I felt that I was a perplexing third party, neutral inhabitant of its perverse universe. Not too many films so far this year have involved me so systematically and forcefully as this one has. Movies so unapologetically irresponsible as this one are not really around very much anymore. It’s such an adrenaline-pumping and shock-inducing exercise in its most pure form. There is no doubt that this film goes for the jugular with its excesses, but it does so with a fiery command of the underlying material and an inventiveness and creativity that should be commended. RUNNING SCARED is far too ambitious and audacious to be labeled as pure rubbish. In our age of moronic, insipid, and easy-going PG-13 action thrillers that are a dime a dozen these days, RUNNING SCARED is a refreshingly macabre work of hard R-rated reckless chaos.
The film’s overall hyperactive and kinetic pacing and tone is due largely to the competence of the man behind the camera. RUNNING SCARED was written and directed by Wayne Kramer, who wrote last year’s decent MINDHUNTERS as well as the criminally underrated THE COOLER of 2003. What is so incredible about RUNNING SCARED is Kramer’s complete mastery of the overall material. He crafts an enormously convoluted plot that contains everything but the kitchen sink and has not one, not two, but three plot twists (most of which are genuinely surprising).
On top of that, his sure-fire direction along with the unbelievably atmospheric cinematography by Jim Whitaker forges such a sensation of the pure grittiness and absurdity of the film’s world. Whitaker and Kramer pull out all of the tricks of the trade, all while being remarkably ingenious with their camera work and how they use it for either flashbacks or fast-forwards. Paradoxically speaking, their work is an exercise in restrained visual overkill. Last year’s DOMINO resembles this film's style, but Tony Scott’s efforts there displayed an ignorance in terms of not stopping for us to catch our breaths. RUNNING SCARED knows impeccably when and where to get implausibly extreme with its self-congratulatory aesthetic trappings and when to cool things down a bit.
The film’s overall plot is so remarkably dense that covering it all in any discernable detail may prove to be futile, not too mention that it could jeopardize some of the film’s more surprising twists and turns. Alas, in a nutshell, go forth do I. Paul Walker plays Joey Gazelle, a low level gangster who works with the mob to dispose of evidence so that no one finds it, most specifically guns that are used in hits. After an initial introductory moment in the film that clearly takes place far in the future, we flashback to a grizzly and gory scene that details a drug deal gone horrible wrong. 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. Hell breaks loose with such a ghastly amount of carnage that the scene looks like it was directed by the love child of Sam Peckinpah and the Wachowski Brothers. Violent as hell? Yes. Darkly intense and wonderfully orchestrated? Absolutely.
Just about everyone is shot dead in the most deplorable manner possible...except for a few. Rydell lives as does Joey and a few of his colleagues. Joey is given the logical task of getting rid of the gun that killed several cops. He ditches the gun…sort of. He takes it home and hides it in a secret compartment in his undeveloped basement. This compartment is not so secret in the sense that his hiding of the gun is witnessed by his son, Nicky (Alex Neuberger) and the shy boy next door, Oleg (played well by Cameron Bright). Oleg, without anyone noticing, takes the gun with a motive that is alarming to say the least. It seems that he has had all he can take with his stepfather, Anzor (Karel Roden, oozing sinister creepiness).
Anzor just may be one of the most resourcefully crafted of cinematic creeps. He is not just a violent and insane thug; he has his own painful reasons for going into a berserker rage all of the time. In short, the movies made him mad. In one of the film’s truly most inspired scenes he calmly relays to Oleg a story of how he grew to love and adore everything John Wayne. He loves the man and his movies so much that he had The Duke tattooed on his entire back. He came to worship at his alter by first watching an 8mm print of THE COWBOYS over and over again…maybe a 1000 times by his recollection. The problem was that this print - from his native Russia- was only minutes long. When he finally came to America he saw the entire version and finds out that – gasp – his hero was shot. He became so bitter by the whole thing that he grew to abuse his wife and son on a repeated basis. Of course, Oleg can’t take it anymore, so he uses the gun that he stole from Joey and shoots his father, but not fatally.
The film then descends deeper and deeper down into despair. Oleg shooting his dad was bad, but it’s also bad because that same gun killed cops. Obviously, the gun will be able to tie the mob to the cops, which ultimately makes Joey on a date with death. He soon realizes that he must find the gun to save his life. This, of course, is a beyond frantic search that leads him to do many inconceivably difficult things. First, he has to recover the slugs that lay Anzor's house walls. Then, he has to get the slug that was in Anzor’s body. This involves him going to the hospital, impersonating a doctor, and using chewing gum to recover the bullet in a brilliantly improvised moment. Yet, to makes matters even worse, Oleg soon runs away, which forces Joey and his son to hunt him down as well. Along for all of this madness is Joey’s wife, Teresa (Vera Farmiga), who proves herself to be more resourceful and tough than your average grieving wife figure.
The plot continues to hurtle by from one extreme to the next. The gun works as a Hitchcockian McGuffin on overdrive, which leads most, if not all of the characters, to intersect with other deplorable human scum. A hooker befriends Oleg at one point after he helps her starve off a beating from her viscous pimp. We also meet various members of the Russian and Italian mob, all who have decidedly dark and twisted mean streaks. We get a final showdown with all of them on a hockey rink that just may give a new dimension to Canada’s most beloved game. And, finally, there is an unrelentingly tense and sickening subplot where Oleg finds himself kidnapped by a husband/wife team of molesters who just may be the most reprehensible and inhuman villains to occupy the movies in quite some time. Of course, Joey is busy with other matters so it’s up to Teresa to come to Oleg’s rescue. Her scenes with the couple are unquestionably edgy and pay off in a way that would make Charles Bronson from DEATH WISH proud.
The most startling aspect of this film is how succinct it fits all of the pieces together. This is not a film that looks like it was shot first without a workable screenplay. RUNNING SCARED is kind of expertly plotted as far as thrillers go, and it has such a breakneck pace that whizzes by effortlessly despite the complications that ensue. Like all great films in this genre, Kramer plays the audience like a violin and knows how to manipulate us efficiently. The film is all over the map, but it’s cleanly told and largely makes sense by the time the credits roll by at the conclusion. Two of the three plot twists are fairly startling; the third is the film’s only great weakness - this one involves the ending and it simply does not work. Then again, two out of three effective payoffs is still pretty good.
The performances as well are amazingly grounded considering the overall mood of the film. Chazz Palminteri plays malevolence so well without overdoing it, and Karel Roden’s monologue about his love for John Wayne is pure gold. The two child actors - Alex Neuberger and Cameron Bright – give performances of mature range well beyond there young years. Vera Farmiga arguably gives the best supporting performance in the film as Joey’s loving and dependable wife. I liked the way that her role was not reduced to the level of a stock character of tertiary value. She weighs in on the overall story in surprising and refreshing ways.
Then there is the poor-man’s Keanu Reeves himself, Paul Walker. Yes, I have been criticized as a Walker-apologist. I have uniformly liked many of his films, from the two FAST AND THE FURIOUS features even to last year’s tastefully exploitative bikini-clad adventure film INTO THE BLUE. Walker was perfectly wooden and adequate in those roles, facilitating their needs to look good sans a shirt and to display enough charm to be convincing. His performance here as Joey is a pure revelation. He has such an astonishing level of intensity, animal ferocity, and uneasy and frenetic vigor. Sure, he was serviceable in those paint-by-numbers roles he occupied in many PG-13 actioneers, but his performance in RUNNING SCARED demonstrates a tremendous amount of calculated and assured tenacity and grittiness. He loses himself so convincingly as Joey that you quickly forget the man behind the persona.
RUNNING SCARED is a phenomenally deplorable, cheese-infested thrill ride of the grotesque that works with such uncanny skill and competency. It’s seemingly more foul mouthed than SCARFACE and CASINO combined and contains moments of disgusting and morbid barbarism that could send those that are not even remotely squeamish into panic attacks. This is one of the most violent films I’ve seen in a long while; it’s nearly masochistically fascinated with death and carnage - the fact that it did not get an NC-17 is amazing. However, RUNNING SCARED is slick, utterly stylish, well acted, and proficiently plotted and directed. The film is alive and breathes a different form of sadistic oxygen than other conventional genre pictures. It’s magnificently tasteless and for that the film has a sick, putrid vitality and an undeniable entertainment value.