***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras C
starring Paul Walker, Cameron Bright, Vera Farmiga, Chazz Palminteri
written and directed by Wayne Kramer
by Walter Chaw I liked Wayne Kramer's Running Scared because Running Scared isn't ashamed of itself. It's not terribly audacious (in direct contradiction to the consensus opinion that the film is "over-the-top," I found it to be sort of tame in its sexuality, violence, and atrocity) and it's not witty or smart or loaded with the archetype that a direct homage to the Brothers Grimm (the picture is set in the fictitious hamlet of "Grimley") would imply. Its prologue's cliffhanger, for instance, is paid off at the end in absolutely the most spineless way possible, betraying the dark fairytale template of which the film is so proud. (Fairytales were never this squeamish about strangers actually injuring--sometimes killing--children.) Besides, there's nothing terribly subversive about suggesting that the world is a dangerous place for kids. And yet, there is embedded in Running Scared's clueless schizophrenia (it wants to be edgy even as it's spending the majority of its energy on slick editing tricks, comic-book CGI effects, and a restless camera that doesn't hold still long enough for a fly to land on it) a nasty, seductive class of real cinematic infatuation and a knowledge, idiot savant-like or otherwise, of how to implicate a viewer in the things unfolding onscreen. A neat trick. Neater because the protagonist with which we suture, as it were, is played by one Paul Walker: possibly the worst actor the United States has ever produced, no matter what Armond White says.
To be fair, Walker is excellent in Running Scared as a one-note, doltish, monosyllabic, Jersey-mob triggerman whose distinctive gun, which he's used to kill some cops, gets stolen by the abused kid, Oleg (Cameron Bright), of his insane, John Wayne-obsessed next-door neighbour (Karel Roden). Of course Joey Gazelle (he runs, scared, get it?) has to retrieve his shiny revolver so as to avoid the wrath of the bulls on one side (Chazz Palminteri) and the guidos (Johnny Messner) on the other, leading to a long, After Hours odyssey through the wild night calling. His wife (Vera Farmiga, a kind of sexually-attractive Claire Forlani), meanwhile, does a little mother bear'ing on her own, saving Oleg from a pair of pederasts (the great Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell) who cast shadows like Max Schreck's Orlok in the film's most impressive set-piece. Of course there's payback for the ghouls (it's a fairytale, after all), but without an equivalent consequence or learning arc for the heroes, all that's left is another cleverly composed grimoire about the absolute righteousness of revenge in a post-9/11 America.
Running Scared fits comfortably alongside a film like Sin City or Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in that it's told from a prick's point-of-view--that of Paul Walker's Joey, sure, but moreover the camera lens fulfills its phallic destiny, approximating in its interest and aggression the opening of the penis. I don't think it's an exposé on gun violence in America (unlike any of a number of well-meaning, terrible films about the life of guns), I think it's a celebration of gun violence anywhere and, pointedly, how guns are substitute johnsons. It's wondrously, exuberantly stupid in a very particular, very masculine kind of way: Jackass as an underworld crime narrative. The film is all violence and testosterone: the only sex is non-consensual; the only shots in a strip club start at the crotch; the only rule of law is Old Testament; and what's celebrated, ultimately, is a child's ability to wield a weapon.
Although Running Scared is often described as ugly, I'm more comfortable saying that it's pretty close to the mark in terms of the darkest fantasies indulged by boys: the mastery of women, the mastery of other men, driving cool cars, having a secret identity, and being the hero of your own thousand faces. It's a recipe for exploitation (and Running Scared is indeed exploitation), but it's done with post-Tarantino, music-video skill that's totally in love with its own artifice while maintaining a certain respect for action; its interstitials and time-stutters actually aid in clarification instead of contributing to obfuscation. (For an example of how this shit fails, see Tony Scott's Domino.) Running Scared demonstrates how style is sometimes substance. It's also an example of a film I recommend simply because it tickled my undercarriage.
New Line's DVDs are the gold standard, and confronted with the challenging task of bringing Kramer's epileptic cross-edits and shifts to the format, they present Running Scared in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of lush, lurid, giallo-like fidelity. The film feels dirty here--and that's the point. A scene at the police station where Oleg's dad appears in a black-and-white shirt is ripe for moiré problems, but no. Amazing. Apropos of nothing, I love folks who attack this film for being, as Tarantino called it, "filmmaking from the pelvis," yet invariably take a moment to mention how sexy Farmiga is and how much they wish she were in more of the film. Anyway, the DD 5.1 audio is great, throbbing and pulsing as is only appropriate, but toggle over to the DTS-ES 6.1 track for a demonstration piece on how to obscure any number of shortcomings within a discrete curtain of noise.
Kramer has recorded a feature-length commentary full of catchphrases and pretension ("noir-ish aspects" is something critics should be talking about, not directors), though he does offer a few interesting moments in trainspotting location shots in Prague (subbing for Jersey) and, especially, in the comparison he draws between this film and Walter Hill's The Warriors. Bless him, that's a legitimate correlation. Less encouraging is his veneration of Tony Scott and, especially, Scott's Man on Fire. Both directors are heavily into the "coolness" vengeance, yeah, but there's something about Scott that makes me want to puke while this picture just sort of made me delighted. Ah, too much information, again.
"Through the Looking Glass" (19 mins.) is a making-of that regurgitates a lot of the same information Kramer delivers in his yakker beneath unhelpful B-roll. Principals appear with soundbites and whole scenes are played back, though it's almost worth it for the description of the picture's colour scheme as "bruised." That's pretty great. It bears mentioning, by the way, that the end credits for this film are exceptional. Kramer's storyboards for the hotel room shootout and hockey rink shootout are displayed in split-screen with the scenes illustrated in the movie--proving, mainly, that Kramer relied a lot on his own storyboards. Running Scared's trailer plus startup and menu-accessible trailers for Firewall, Final Destination 3, some abomination with Scott Glenn as a trained assassin (Hard to Squeeze), Year of the Yao, A History of Violence, and "Blade: The Series" join a DVD-ROM script-to-screen comparison in rounding out the platter. The keepcase includes an insert adapting Running Scared's climax as a graphic novella. Originally published: July 14, 2006.