❉ We take a walk on the wild side with Wayne Kramer’s ferocious thriller.
“Running Scared takes elements from the traditional cop film and mixes them with super-dark magical realism (truly the nastiest kind), gritty 70’s flourishes, and modern violence ‘n mayhem which results in an intoxicating brew of kitchen-sink-cinema.”
Running Scared is off the wall, go-for-broke-cinema. You feel like an outlaw while viewing it. Directed with ferocious energy by the fiercely independent and tremendously gifted writer/director Wayne Kramer, this cult favourite was released to both critical adoration and hostility (the Ebert & Roeper episode is a BONA FIDE CLASSIC, with Roeper truly showing how much of an ignoramus he can be), and represented a total switch-up in terms of film-making style and intent from his earlier, far more reserved picture, the Las Vegas-set romantic drama The Cooler. This film was part of the mid-2000’s trend of cubist action pictures made by filmmakers looking to advance the form of the extreme action movie (Tony Scott’s Domino, Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces, and Michael Davis’s Shoot ‘Em Up are other notable entries in this sub-genre with more recent stuff like Carnahan’s Stretch and Kramer’s Pawn Shop Chronicles also serving as welcome additions).
Running Scared made a splash with adventurous audiences in 2006, and it ranks as one of the premiere R-rated actioners of the last 15 years. It’s a supremely stylish hybrid that goes to some truly creepy and insane places on a narrative level while never stopping in the aesthetic explosion department, treating the camera and editing bay as if they were the ultimate toys at a filmmaker’s disposal – as it should be in my estimation. I fucking love this movie. LOVE IT. I was blown away in the theatre when I first saw it, and was immediately obsessed with the aggressive stylings and forceful dramatic content that sometimes borders on an overt political statement.
Running Scared takes elements from the traditional cop film and mixes them with super-dark magical realism (truly the nastiest kind), gritty 70’s flourishes, and modern violence ‘n’ mayhem which results in an intoxicating brew of kitchen-sink-cinema. This film won’t be for everyone, but for those looking to take a walk on the wild side, look no further.
Ebert’s famous review of Running Scared said it all: “Speaking of movies that go over the top, ‘Running Scared’ goes so far over the top, it circumnavigates the top and doubles back on itself; it’s the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness. I am in awe. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Then it throws in the kitchen sink, too, and the combo washer-dryer in the laundry room, while the hero and his wife are having sex on top of it.” HA! I couldn’t have said it any better myself, Roger. Damn I miss your passion.
Running Scared is a joyous celebration of all things wild and woolly, with an incredibly engaging and increasingly frenzied lead performance from the late Paul Walker, a terrific supporting turn from Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel, Orphan, The Conjuring) as his strong-willed wife, and tons of great character actors showing off their gruff faces and getting into some seriously nasty shoot-outs: Chazz Palminteri, Johnny Messner, Karl Roden, John Noble, Ivana Milicevic, David Warshofsky, Arthur J. Nascarella, Bruce Altman, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Michael Cudlitz are all extremely memorable.
The narrative pivots on a gun used in the murder of a corrupt cop; it’s up to gangster underling Joey (Walker) to dispose of the weapon in question without it ever being found. But when the gun goes missing thanks to Joey’s 10 year old son and his snooping best friend, all hell breaks loose, and he’s on the run looking for the pistol while trying to evade the dangerous cross-hairs of crooked cops, psycho pimps, child killers, and the Russian mob. I’m not saying anything more than that on a story level as this film will surprise anyone who checks it out. There’s simply no way to see the various events coming before they arrive in this unhinged piece.
This is a dangerous, perverse, adult-oriented flick, replete with seriously graphic violence, hot sex, full frontal nudity, and the exquisitely liberal use of my favourite word: “Fuck.” And without spoiling it, the way Kramer used Farmiga’s character in the second half of this film deserves major praise. In far too many films, the role of the put-upon wife can feel like an afterthought. Not here. In the film’s most controversial bits, she gets to “take out the trash” in a vigilante fashion that feels both emotionally bracing and incredibly cathartic for anyone who feels that societal garbage needs to be wiped out.
The cinematographer James Whitaker goes berserk, filming the action in jagged, extreme close-ups and ultra-slick Steadicam to create a sense of danger and immediacy while upping the visceral ante considerably in all of the brazenly bloody shoot-outs and pummelling beat-downs. Arthur Coburn’s astute editing treats each shot like a piece of the increasingly crazy puzzle that this film ultimately resembles, with staccato editing patterns to match the increasingly heightened visuals. Mark Isham’s sinister and incredibly effective score still haunts me on a weekly basis, with that great theme song used in all the right moments. And again, I have to go back to one of my absolute favourite elements of this movie, which is all of the stuff with Farmiga’s character, and what she gets to add to the story on an overall emotional level. Thanks to Kramer’s inventive screenplay, the thankless role of the “onlooking wife” has been given some heft and texture instead of being relegated to the sidelines, especially after so memorably introducing her. Kramer found ways for the narrative to involve her in interesting and complex ways, giving her character her own arc, and giving the film a menacing edge it might not otherwise have had.
And yet another thing I love about this movie is how the various scumbags truly get what they deserve in this outrageous world that Kramer created. You can’t truly take this movie seriously but that doesn’t stop it from being anything less than outlandishly entertaining. It’s a constantly shifting piece of storytelling and is filled with twists and turns, and when you think about everything by the conclusion, you’ll notice that some of what happens didn’t need to happen, but it did because of the daring bravura of Kramer’s nightmarish vision. That the film was shot in Prague and set in New Jersey only adds to the unique flavour of the entire piece. This was Kramer unleashed, experimenting with form while still paying heed to the satisfying conventions of genre. If this is a film that has escaped you, do yourself a favour and check it out. But be prepared for something cranked up to 100!
❉ ‘Running Scared’ (2006) Directed by Wayne Kramer. Starring Paul Walker, Vera Farmiga, Chaz Palmintieri, Alex Neuberger, Cameron Bright, Ivana Milicevic. Approx. Running time: 119 mins. BBFC Cert. 18. Distributed by New Line Cinema.
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.