by JAMES BRIGHAM
Amongst a bevy of first-rate actors, Paul Walker, of all people, shines in Running Scared, Wayne (The Cooler) Kramer’s newest unreal crime drama. For most of this ex-model’s career, Walker’s been consigned to playing the handsome but lifeless throwaway characters of the silver screen – as equally adept at portraying the bland bad guy (She’s All That) as he is the pedestrian vanilla hero (The Fast and the Furious). The neo-noir Running Scared is a welcome change of pace from these past pretty boy roles that seem to have dominated his life. Walker’s Joey is miles away from the “just-smacked-in-the-head-by-a-surfboard” look Walker displayed on Into the Blue’s poster and his performance is a return to the high quality acting chops displayed in John Dahl’s Joyride, an equally absorbing thriller.
The picture begins suddenly, as the audience is thrust headfirst into a chaotic scene in which Joey, our protagonist, is speeding recklessly down a daytime city street, an unknown boy covered in blood fearfully huddled in the passenger seat. Joey is screaming along with the kid as they hurdle past parked cars and precariously close to passing bicyclists, presumably on the way towards getting help. Before we can fully formulate an idea as to what is going on, Running Scared flashes backwards in time to detail the bizarre domino sequence that will eventually lead to this terrifying moment.
Joey’s a dim low-level thug cruising through life like most organized crime minions do. He’s the guy who stands guard by the front door during a shady meeting by the bosses or the one who’s asked to beat up a shopkeeper he’s never met. A drug deal he’s part of goes bad when some unknown assailants pop in to rob the two gangs doing business. The ensuing shootout is violent and visceral with an appreciable level of depressing realism (one guy slips in a pool of blood) and Peckinpah flourish (slow motion impact of a shotgun blast). The assailants are either killed or driven off and then the room goes dead silent – it turns out that these would be robbers were a bunch of cops. (Kudos to Walker and the costume, makeup, and lighting crews for ensuring that Walker doesn’t stand out as a recognizable face during this intense sequence. It reinforces his believability as a nobody and a schlub.)
As Joey, Paul Walker’s first moment to step up and take center stage as the supposed star of the picture doesn’t even require him to speak any lines. He’s just sitting in the back of a getaway vehicle; rapidly chewing gum and watching with fixed interest the exchange between his two criminal superiors in the front seat. Joey doesn’t interject and he doesn’t look overly scared. He just looks eager to hear what the next job is going to be in the wake of this disaster. Joey is the low man on the totem pole and he knows it; when assigned the task of disposing of a gun used to kill one of the officers, he accepts the direction like an office drone being asked by a supervisor to photocopy some TPS reports.
The boy from the flashback is soon revealed to be Joey’s son’s best friend, Oleg (Cameron Bright), an asthmatic youth who lives next door. He is the child of Russian immigrants, who also happen to run a crystal meth lab in their basement. Oleg’s father, Anzor (Karel Roden), is a John Wayne worshiping brute who routinely abuses his poor wife. Unbeknownst to this thug, Oleg has witnessed enough violence in his young life and decides to put an end to it by shooting his father with a silver snub-nosed pistol: a gun stolen from his best friend’s basement and one of the very same firearms used to murder a dirty cop at the beginning of the film. Cue Oleg running off into the night with the gun in tow.
The crux of the story is Joey chasing after every possible lead on where Oleg and/or the gun might be currently hiding. Complicating matters is the slimy Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri) who’s also trying to find this .38 in order to blackmail Joey’s mob buddies out of major cash. Off and on throughout the movie, Joe also enlists the aid of his plucky wife, Teresa (The Departed’s Vera Farmiga), and devoted son, Nicky (Alex Neuberger) to help search for this elusive MacGuffin.
Joey’s pursuit leads him and his family into the depths of a New Jersey cityscape, but this isn’t the same kind of Jersey you or I would find after stepping off a plane. This is writer/director Wayne Kramer’s nightmarish faerie tale version of New Jersey, replete with oddball personae and visual flourish. Crazed cartoon pimps and mob-backed hockey players bump shoulders with aggressive blowtorch wielding mechanics and shadowy whispering druggies. Joey and Oleg keep missing each other by mere moments as they bounce from one improbably bizarre scenario to the next.
Kramer effectively emphasizes the otherworldly aspects of his script via expert application of trick photography, unconventional lighting, and CGI manipulation of the scenery. The film’s climactic tense gangland confrontation at the ice rink is bathed in black lights. A sexual predator’s lair is as colorful as a Candy Land board, but tinged with creeping Nosferatu type shadows. Joey mentally calculates the projection of a bullet in tune with the rapid dismantling and reassembly of the window behind him. There’s a wealth of memorable visual sequences in Running Scared that evoke comparison to films like After Hours or The Warriors, both of which have similar surrealistic takes on the nighttime urban realm.
Special applause should be dispensed to the artists behind the Joey / Teresa dynamic: to Kramer for conceiving of such a memorable blue-collar crime pairing and to Walker and Farmiga for each and every moment of domestic passion they helped bring to life. Their part of Running Scared jumps believably from laundry room eroticism to heroic bloodshed and everywhere in-between. Am I the only one who wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up film set in the past that details their courtship and subsequent matrimony? Get on it, Kramer.
Despite its underwhelming box office performance, Running Scared is a coup for the youngish Mr. Walker and it will hopefully be used as a launching pad for further expansion of his acting resume. His tough talking meathead performance fits right in with the rest of the “F-bomb” dropping, fist throwing, skull splitting, and bullet slinging excess. Shamefully, many films fly under the radar of the mainstream audience on an annual basis; Running Scared did not deserve such a fate and I highly encourage anyone who’s the slightest bit interested in offbeat filmmaking to give it a chance.
3 1/2 stars