Warning: Wayne Kramer’s new film, Running Scared, is every bit as over-the-top and violent as you may have heard, and if such things bother you, then this is not the movie for you. For that matter, you might be well advised to look for entertainment elsewhere if you’re in the market for anything approaching a “normal” movie.
Whatever Running Scared is, it is about as far from normal as you’re likely to get. If it were a human being instead of a movie, it would be someone you’d walk on the other side of the street to avoid. That’s exactly the reason that it’s also the most fascinating film to be released yet this year — perversely fascinating, but fascinating all the same.
Even if you think you know Kramer — either from The Cooler, or his screenplay for the Renny Harlin crapfest Mindhunters — this film will surprise you with its combination of extreme strangeness and its seeming inability to know when too much is enough. Kramer dedicated the film to Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma and Walter Hill, which is understandable in Running Scared‘s kinetic flashiness — but its flamboyance and lack of concern over traditional narrative coherence resembles De Palma more than it does the others.
The story line is at once incredibly convoluted and largely inessential. It’s mostly an excuse for an increasingly elaborate series of violent or disturbing or disturbingly violent set-pieces that, taken together, form a singularly warped collection of fairy tales — something made clear by the film’s Lemony Snickett-inspired animated closing credits. The plot, such as it is, follows the improbably named Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker, Out of the Blue), a low-level gangster whose specialty is cleaning up crime scenes.
Unbeknownst to his gangland employers, Joey has kept a stash of evidence from every killing he’s cleaned up as a kind of insurance policy (he says) in case he ever needs to finger said employers. At the same time, unbeknownst to him, his son, Nicky (newcomer Alex Neuberger), and the kid’s friend, Oleg (Cameron Bright, Birth), have seen him hide his latest acquisition — a shiny, chrome-plated .38. Oleg appropriates this trophy and uses it to shoot his abusive, John Wayne-worshipping, Russian meth-dealer step-dad, Ivan (John Noble, The Return of the King). The problem is that this gun can be traced to the killing of a dirty cop — something suspected by equally dirty cop Rydell (Chazz Palminteri, In the Mix), who, along with Joey’s employers, becomes determined to get his hands on the errant heater, which has disappeared along with Oleg.
The bulk of the film concerns the search for this gun — well, more or less, since it’s obvious early on that the gun doesn’t matter all that much. The point of the film is the “adventures” that happen along the way — most of which can best be described as nightmarish, and all of which involve the two kids more than the adults — and a parade of bizarre, generally repellent, often downright monstrous characters. There’s very little normalcy to be found in any corner of this film’s world, which is a good part of its appeal, along with the fact that the plot twists and turns and doubles back on itself before turning again with such unbridled absurdity that it’s wondrous to behold in its amassed preposterousness.
What’s most amazing — apart from Kramer getting a passable performance out of Paul Walker — is the way in which the film keeps topping itself. By the time it passes the incredibly creepy sequence involving a pair of ueber-normal-looking child pornographers (Elizabeth Mitchell and Bruce Altman) who turn out to be even worse than they seem, you can’t help but feel the rest will be a protracted anticlimax — and then it isn’t.
Wildly stylized (here’s a case where Prague standing in for New Jersey actually is in the film’s favor) and endlessly inventive, Running Scared doesn’t go over the top — it blows the top off and proceeds to dance in the rubble. It has no deep meaning. It doesn’t pretend to. It’s just pure moviemaking at its most overheated. Rated R for pervasive strong, brutal violence and language, sexuality and drug content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke