By Stephanie Zacharek
By Simon Abrams
By Michelle Orange
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Nick Schager
By Amy Nicholson
By The Invisible Woman
By I Used to Be Darker
If you have any awareness at all of the existence of Running Scared -- no, not the Gregory Hines/Billy Crystal cop buddy comedy, but the new film written and directed by Wayne Kramer -- chances are you have but one question: How in God's name does anyone expect us to believe that Paul Walker can handle himself in a serious role? Walker, whose blue eyes and chiseled abs have appeared in a movie or two aimed at young ladies, is the most vacant piece of big-screen chick bait to appear in action movies since Keanu Reeves chased Patrick Swayze along the beach in Point Break.
Actually, he's well matched with writer-director Kramer, whose ability to tell a down-and-dirty story is approximately equal to Walker's ability to perform in one. Kramer's debut feature, The Cooler, was tremendously overrated, probably because the mere presence of William H. Macy fooled people into thinking the rest of the film measured up; his new one is formally dedicated to Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma and Walter Hill. Since Peckinpah, being dead, can't appreciate the gesture, one must assume the ulterior motive of trying to persuade audiences that Running Scared is in some way a movie in the Peckinpah mold. It ain't. The filmmaker whose work this most resembles is Guy Ritchie, except that Kramer actually seems to be taking himself seriously, in much the same way that twelve-year-old boys who swear constantly and talk crassly about sex think they're being "adult."
Which isn't to say that there's no fun to be had. Fans of gratuitous swearing, strip-club scenes and blood splattering on people's faces will find much to enjoy, though it really is executed without much apparent joy or even shock value. Perhaps it may seem daring for female lead Vera Farmiga to show pubic hair or Walker to show butt cheek, but it pales in comparison to the talent (and the skin) Farmiga showed in Down to the Bone.
Walker, adopting a humorously fake "mobster" accent, plays Joey Gazelle, a Mafia associate in New Jersey who stashes evidence in his basement. His young son, Nicky (Alex Neuberger), is good friends with the neighbor boy, Oleg (Cameron Bright), whose stepfather (Karel Roden) is a nutcase Russian crystal-meth addict with a giant John Wayne tattoo on his back (and he's downright subtle compared to some of the characters we meet later). One day, when the boys are playing, Oleg sees the evidence stashed in Joey's house, takes a distinctive gun home with him and shoots his stepfather before running away into the night. Problem is, that particular gun was used in the murder of a crooked police officer, and now mobsters, cops and other nutjob Russians are all trying to find it. Thus begins a long night for Joey, who has to find and get rid of the gun before anyone else can prove it exists.
And thus also begins a ridiculous series of contrivances to ensure that the gun gets passed from one person to another, with none of the new owners recognizing its significance, and Joey showing up on the scene after it's been handed off -- just missing it by that much. Among the crazy cartoonish characters we meet are a monstrous cackling wino; Chazz Palminteri doing that thing he does; a married couple who own their own kiddie-porn studio and appear to have an animated Freddy Krueger shadow in their bathroom (never explained); and a white pimp who quotes Scarface, only to have Joey tell him that it's lame to quote Scarface. Yes, boys, it is. So shut up already.
The stylish, comic-booky end credits imply that the whole thing has been a fairy-tale allegory like Freeway, with little Oleg as the child who runs into the haunted woods (i.e., the Czech Republic unconvincingly masquerading as New Jersey). This might have worked if Oleg were the main character, but he isn't. The movie probably would have been better if told purely from his point of view, and not just because young Cameron Bright is a vastly superior actor to Paul Walker (alas, his name doesn't sell tickets yet). Infuriatingly, one key detail that might have helped us sympathize more with Joey is withheld until the climax, where it's a brief surprise that doesn't change anything significantly.
If you hang in there long enough, though, you get to see Paul Walker have his face smashed with hockey pucks. That's almost worth the price of admission.
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