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Running Scared   F

New Line Cinema / Media 8 Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Wayne Kramer
Writer: Wayne Kramer
Cast: Paul Walker, Cameron Bright, Vera Farmiga, Karel Roden, Johnny Messner, Ivana Milicevic, Chazz Palminteri.

Review by Rob Vaux

I wonder if Peter Hyams can sue these people. How can he face the world now that his forgettable-but-harmless '80s buddy comedy Running Scared shares a title with this vile toilet stain of a movie? Director Wayne Kramer has fashioned a disaster of jaw-dropping proportions, marrying a cartoonishly hyperaggressive technique to a story that is equal parts ludicrous and reprehensible. It's been a particularly grim year for the movies so far -- featuring great stars going down in flames, box-office "winners" like Big Momma's House 2, and the uniquely fungal tang of Uwe Boll -- but Running Scared hits a shuddering, horrifying, barrel-scraping low.

The core of the issue lies in two elements: 1) Kramer's hopelessly derivative style, which packs every frame with computer-assisted stunts in a shameless aping of Tony Scott; and 2) a laughably executed yet patently offensive plot that attempts to marry gritty film noir with the sensibilities of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The first element is merely annoying, the second inexcusable. It starts when low-level mob flunky Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) is asked to destroy a handgun after it is used to kill a gang of corrupt cops. Instead, he hides it in his basement, where a young friend of his son's (Cameron Bright) absconds with it and flees into the night. Gazelle has to find the boy and the gun before the police do, prompting an extensive odyssey into a New Jersey underworld seething with unfiltered evil. We follow the weapon through an array of horrendous characters, embodying every one-note stereotype you can imagine: gangsters, crack addicts, street walkers and pimps, each drawn in broad, hackneyed strokes designed to ratchet up their exploitative thrills. Through them, Walker's massively unsympathetic protagonist cuts a broad swath, using macho swagger and casual gunplay to track the stolen weapon while a variety of higher-ups breathe menacingly down his neck.

The extremities involved are presumably part of the point -- exciting some audience members while shocking others into publicity-generating outrage. Unfortunately, Kramer displays no flair for the material, relying instead on knee-jerk brutality and Tourette's syndrome dialogue that repeatedly mistakes crudity for wit. To it, he adds a tiresome array of spastic visual cues and camera tricks packed so densely into the frame that they drown out any notion of thought or coherence.

That all would be bad enough, but -- inexplicably, astoundingly, beyond all scope of reason -- Kramer mixes the sleazy Sin City imitation with a wholly misguided child-in-danger fairy tale: a sort of grown-up Lemony Snicket featuring urban criminals instead of big bad wolves. It comes in the form of Oleg, the boy who first took the gun, and who subsequently wanders the urban wilderness from first frame to last. That puts him front and center for the gruesome cavalcade in between -- viewing, experiencing, and even participating in the film's endlessly scummy fundaments of human wrongdoing. Gazelle takes his own son with him during the pursuit, which only compounds matters -- ensuring that some 10-year-old or another always has a ringside seat to the hellish displays the filmmakers have seen fit to reveal. Kramer would doubtless argue that the film's over-the-top nature gives it all a playful tone, distorting the threats to unreal and therefore harmless proportions. But that absurdity never mitigates the basic repulsiveness of the images: a little boy empowering himself by brandishing a firearm, staring passively while a pimp grinds a hooker's face into the glass of a broken headlight, and dodging a pair of child molesters whose ridiculous yet profoundly nauseating presence encapsulates the movie's failure in one slimy, bile-inducing stroke. It beggars belief that responsible adults could have perpetrated such notions without being clocked on the skull by their betters.

Would that someone had the guts. By insisting on the pretense of a "hard-edged" crime thriller while catering to wink-wink larger-than-life exploitation, Running Scared suggests a profound state of denial on the part of the filmmakers. They brandish their indie credentials with vigor and enthusiasm in the press materials, as if claims to "daringness" and "pushing the envelope" could excuse such wretched, hateful results. It's possible to achieve the sort of transgressive fun for which they were presumably aiming -- Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have made entire careers out of it -- but it takes more than cheap camera gimmicks and gratuitous use of the word "fuck" to strike that elusive tone. Kramer's ham-fisted button-pushing demolishes the movie's creative pulse, while his thoughtless irresponsibility renders its subtext an amoral fright. I'm sure there's an audience for Running Scared somewhere; I just hope they stay far, far away from me.

Review published 02.23.2006.

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