Running Scared is officially one of the oddest movies I have ever seen. Here’s a film with a potentially interesting story that it approaches as if on some kind of drug. We’ve all seen fantasy films that had some grounding in the real world; in contrast, Running Scared is set in the real world yet has its grounding in fantasy. It is so bizarre, so far over the top, that it makes something like Charlie & the Chocolate Factory seem downright plausible in comparison.
Paul Walker plays Joey Gazelle, a low-level mobster. He’s also a family man devoted to his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and son Nicky (Alex Neuberger). Early on, Joey is ordered to dispose of a gun that was used to kill a crooked cop. He stashes the piece in his basement, where Nicky’s best friend Oleg Yugorsky (Cameron Bright) finds it and uses it to shoot his abusive stepfather. The kid then takes off with the gun, meaning that Joey has to find it before it can be used to incriminate anyone.
Finding Oleg is easier said than done. Although it ostensibly takes place on Earth, the characters in Running Scared seem to spend a lot of time on Planet Sleazeball. In addition to Mafioso and dirty cops, there are also Russian mobsters, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, abusive husbands, strippers, perverts and – in the most disturbing sequence – child molesters. Everywhere Joey chases Oleg, he encounters these lowlifes. And the poor boy just keeps jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. After somehow managing to elude most of the aforementioned individuals, he hides in the back of a van that just happens to belong to a pair of middle-aged child molesters. They take him home to their toy-filled apartment and try to force him to take part in a home video with two other kids. Their closet is filled with body bags and cleaning products (I’m not making this up) and when the molesters appear in silhouette, they have long Freddy Kruger-like talons. Yes indeed, this place makes Sin City look like Disney Land.
If the content of the movie seems excessive, you should get a load of the visuals. The camera constantly spins, pans, whips, whooshes, and rotates. It follows bullet trajectories and hockey pucks, and even crashes through windows. The image changes in color and film stock. It flips upside down, gets grainy like an old movie, and even simulates film burning in the projector. It rewinds, pauses, and fast-forwards itself. There are flashes and over-exposures and lighting tricks galore. Watching Running Scared is almost exhausting because what you’re physically looking at is always changing or evolving. I don’t think there’s a single static shot in the whole film.
The weird thing about Running Scared is that its tone doesn’t match its content. The story is packed with one over-the-top moment after the next, yet it’s never clear whether or not we’re supposed to perceive it as a comedy. I was reminded of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, which also played with the visual image and had more than its share of outlandish moments. However, that film cued you in to the idea that it was satire; you were, at some level, meant to laugh at the sheer overkill of it all. Running Scared, on the other hand, fills the screen with outrageous moments, but plays them straight. It’s confusing for us in the audience, who don’t know whether to laugh or cringe.
For instance, Oleg’s abusive stepfather is a John Wayne fanatic who even has a gigantic Duke tattoo on his back. In the only scene of abuse we see, the guy is upset at Oleg for not sharing his Wayne enthusiasm. “John Wayne is a faggot,” the kid tells him, and all hell breaks loose. Are we supposed to laugh or be afraid of a guy who is this worshiping of an old movie star? Or how about the climactic finale in which horrific acts of violence take place in a black-lit hockey rink where everyone glows and mobsters shoot Day-Glo pucks at Joey’s face? One also has to marvel at the way Joey is able to casually wander into private areas of hospitals and restaurants to retrieve evidence, without ever drawing attention to himself. Are we really supposed to believe that he could simply saunter into an operating room wearing a surgical mask and scrubs he found in the laundry? And why, when he puts them back, does no one see him even though he’s in a crowded room?
If Running Scared is supposed to be a satire, it’s not funny enough to work. If it’s meant to be taken seriously, then it’s the most unintentionally funny movie of the past ten years. I could never figure out how it was meant to be taken because it’s literally all over the map. Writer/director Wayne Kramer’s last picture was The Cooler, which had a very precise and delicate tone. This time, he’s like a Tasmanian devil in a china shop, throwing every single thing he can at the screen. Many of these individual moments would work beautifully in the context of a different story, but when they’re all strung together and combined with incessantly graphic violence, it becomes a most unpleasant type of overkill.
This is the second Paul Walker movie in two weeks, coming as it does on the heels of the far superior Eight Below. The actor is miscast here and suffers for it. His attempt to speak in a thick Jersey accent is the biggest vocal disaster since the “British” Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Then again, in a film where the F-word is sometimes used five or six times per sentence and everyone yells all their dialogue, how good are you expected to be?
( 1/2 out of four)
Running Scared is rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence and language, sexuality and drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
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