by Chris Knipp
I commented once that in his excellent first film Narc Joe Carnahan, who was making something like Running Scared, created a problem for himself because he began with a gritty hand-held chase and it was going to be hard to keep up the pace that opening sequence established. Carnahan wrote me and said I was right, it had been tricky. Wayne Kramer doesn't worry about that kind of thing. He begins fast and gritty and violent, continues fast and gritty and violent, and ends fast and gritty and violent. He cranks up the action and the visuals so hard and fast in this movie from start to finish, it's all so over the top, so crazy and maxed-out from frame one, that there's no development. There's no sense of suspense or -- strangely -- of momentum, only the dazed walk out of the theater when it's over, feeling like you've had three vacuum cleaners running next to your head for two hours.
Paul Walker, the car racing man, the surfing, diving man, and right now the man who goes back to the Antarctic to save his beautiful, amazing team of lost sled dogs for love and for Disney, assays a darker role here as a minor New Jersey Italian Mafioso, or more accurately Mafia flunky, and this, needless to say, is a bit of a stretch for straight-arrow Paul, who hails from Glendale, California and even when he's being tough has a sweet goodness in his face. Can Paul act? That's a question that hasn't been put to the test; all we know is he's athletic and sort of friendly, he looks good with his shirt off, and his roles are all pure action roles. Not a problem here, even though he keeps his shirt on. Once again, acting is not called for from Paul, just movement, and the darkness and grittiness are provided by the cinematography, which is so heavily processed 99% of it looks like a music video for a Lower Slobovian heavy metal band strung out on meth.
I'm frankly going to have to wait till the Cliff's Notes come out on Running Scared before I can describe the plot for you with any confidence. What's clear is that there's this guy, and he's Paul Walker, but he's supposed to be Italian (his name is Joey Gazelle; that's Italian, right?), and he's in a shootout right at the beginning, a particularly violent, loud, loutish, and close-up photographed one, and it turns out one of the guys who gets killed is a cop, and his shiny snub-nosed pistol disappears, and Joey has to get it or he's in big, big trouble. And there are these two kids, Nicky (Alex Neuberger), Joey's son, and Nicky's pal Oleg (Cameron Bright), whose parents are some lowlife Russians who live next door. The boys are eleven or twelve years old, and a lot of the time they, especially Oleg, are smarter and craftier than the adults. This was something new and interesting to learn: that for the most part a crafty kid is wiser than a movie Mafioso.
You need the Cliff's Notes because in Running Scared nothing is what it seems: it's not just the visuals that are over the top, but the plotting. Everything is reversed, and reversed again before you've figured out what was happening in the first place. Chaz Palminteri is a tough extortionist cop. Oleg's mom's boyfriend has John Wayne tattooed all over his brawny back. He's a real mean s.o.b. and Oleg shoots him, right off -- so now you know. But he lives -- to fall much later in a death the Duke himself would have approved.
There's one passage that's different, and it's when Oleg becomes the prisoner of a pedophile couple who do awful things to abducted children -- and this is the scariest part of the movie, perhaps the only really scary part (calculated though it transparently is to weird you out, it does), and in it (and nowhere else) the photography is bright and clear and the camera doesn't dwell on jerky close-ups but shows room after room in burnt-out fish-eye views. It's quite effective to be able to take a good look at things. (But there seem to be some people in Hollywood who have no faith in this.)
At the end of Running Scared our hero (I guess he is), Joey Gazelle, is face down in a hockey rink surrounded by a gang of colorful nasties (don't ask me who they are: wait for the Cliff's Notes) and he gets hockey pucks slap-shot at his head, over and over. . . and still he is able (heroically, his face in a pool of make-believe blood) to deliver a lengthy expository speech (it will be summarized in the Cliff's Notes) to the assembled gangsters and crooked cops. This is a movie that has to provide a surprise every ten to twenty seconds, so just about nothing turns out the way you think it will -- or it if does, for a minute, but then it's reversed, as I said, and usually the outcome is more violent and there are more F-words per minute than you ever thought possible, even after watching every season of "The Sopranos." Vera Farmiga, as Joey's gutsy wife, Teresa, delivers a lot of them, and Joey keeps telling her not to, because they're bad for the kid to hear.
It's all very relaxing, I guess, and nobody would take any of this seriously for more than, maybe, the number of minutes it takes an angry mom to come and rescue the boy kidnapped by the sadistic pedophiles -- which isn't many, thanks to cell phones. There's really not a lot to remember when it's all over, because of that vacuum cleaner feeling, although maybe you'll remember Chaz Palminteri's bulging neck. I liked the way some of the people flew up in the air or plunged over barriers when they got shot. And don't worry: Paul Walker really is a good guy, after all. You can see it in his face. As I said, he has a nice face.
©2006 Chris Knipp