Astonishing in its sheer jaw-dropping randomness, Wayne Kramer’s follow-up to The Cooler (2003) is one of the most violent films in recent years. Scrapping an intriguing premise in favour of pointless confrontations and wild plot divergences, it nevertheless casts an almost supernatural spell. At the very least, Running Scared never lets you settle.
Paul Walker (The Fast and The Furious (2001), Roadkill (2001), Into The Blue (2005)) plays Joey Gazelle, a low level New Jersey hood whose outfit is involved in a shootout with some corrupt cops. It is up to Joey to hide the guns that will incriminate them. However, Joey’s son and his best friend Oleg find the guns and Oleg steals one, shooting and injuring his Russian mobster step-father in the process. Now Joey must recover the boy and the gun before his crew, the Russians and the cops find him and kill him.
…a sex scene, spousal abuse and attempted patricide
I’ll admit that I went into this film thirsty for its 18 certificate credentials, tired of this latest string of half-hearted actioners and 12A video game adaptations. But it didn’t take long for Running Scared to shake me out of my complacency. The first twenty minutes features a staggeringly brutal and effectively edited opening shoot-out, a sex scene, spousal abuse and attempted patricide — all this before the plot even gets started.
As Joey sets off with his son in pursuit of Oleg and the incriminating gun, the film becomes frequently bizarre and implausible. A sequence in a restaurant where Oleg tries to hide the gun takes too long, allowing the frailness of the plot to surface, and different parties pile into the story making it virtually impossible to keep track of who knows what. In addition to this, the language is numbing. The swearing is vicious, profane and constant, though calling it gratuitous would be speaking too soon as at least the filmmakers are refusing to compromise. It’s almost funny to see Joey’s wife Teresa (convincingly played by Vera Farmiga despite her characters numerous inconsistencies) constantly berating her husband for swearing in front of their son.
…Farmiga handles the astounding sequence very well in spite of its implausibility
Up to this point, the film is an extraordinarily violent and foul-mouthed but still routine chase thriller. Then the film starts to resemble Magnolia (Anderson, 1999) in a number of ways: peripheral characters coincidentally end up with the gun; characters converge in the same places at unlikely times. And then things take an unexpected turn when Oleg inadvertently finds himself trapped in a house with a pair of paedophiles. It is a truly surreal, certainly chilling sequence that stops the film for an entire fifteen minutes as Teresa traces the boy and confronts the seemingly normal looking couple who have him and two other children captive. Farmiga handles the astounding sequence very well in spite of its implausibility (why doesn’t Teresa call for Oleg while she’s searching the apartment), though the conclusion of this segment borders on sermonizing and only highlights its inconsequentiality. Teresa comes out of the situation changed and she later confronts Joey about his criminal activities: “I saw true evil tonight, but I don’t see it in your eyes”. What a strange plot device to use just to enlighten one character!
Then Kramer pulls out all the stops for a unique shoot-out on the ice of an indoor hockey stadium. This showdown is even more violent then the first one: hockey pucks are repeatedly smashed into Joey’s face; a mans head is decimated by a shotgun blast; characters are shot at point blank range. The violence in the film is shocking, gory and relentless but it is admittedly exhilarating. It is likely to appeal to those who were upset by the recent adaptations of Resident Evil (2002 and 2004) and Doom (2005). One scene sees a shotgun-eye view of a guy being shot across the room and into a wall that is more efficient than those films put together. While the action itself is undeniably exciting, it is the pervasive sense of threat that begins to grate as Joey bursts in on a number of seedy characters and shouts and threatens them, including a defenseless woman and her baby, who he waves a gun at.
…adds another annoyingly blank-faced mute to his repertoire
Walker, as Joey, clearly relishes the chance to cut loose from his straight-laced hero roles and he carries the film ably though, as I mentioned above, Joey does increasingly drain sympathy through his actions. A pair of twists in the final minutes concerning his character tries to let him off the hook but only disappoints as it belies the darkness of the film that has gone before. As Oleg, Cameron Bright (the kid from Godsend (2004) and The Butterfly Effect (2004)) adds another annoyingly blank-faced mute to his repertoire. I’m beginning to suspect the young boy is still dumbstruck that he got to bathe naked with Nicole Kidman in Birth (2004). The supporting cast who portray the array of mobsters and corrupt cops including Chazz Palminteri and Karel Roden (who made a memorable appearance with Farmiga in 15 Minutes (2001)) are especially effective as thoroughly dislikable characters.
Running Scared is a fascinating mess with the hypnotic, terrible attraction of a car wreck. You’re not likely to see anything like it for a while and it’s a surprise it hasn’t been controversial or more widely advertised. Despite its brilliantly executed and violent action scenes that make A History of Violence (2005) look like “A History of Being Very Nice”, you ultimately stop caring about who is killed and why, but you sure as hell can’t wait to see how. Demoralizing, but somehow totally entertaining and engaging.