WARNING: Review contains minor spoilers, i.e. things that aren’t surprises but also aren’t in the trailers or TV spots. I would reccomend that you read this AFTER you see the movie, which you should do right away because it’s THE BEST NEW MOVIE OF 2006!
First things first: I owe Paul Walker an apology. I’ve taken my shots at him for pretty much his entire career, and so have the rest of the critics. Guess what? We misjudged him. The man can act, and act quite well, and hold his own as a leading man when properly directed in tandem with a good script. Last week’s “Eight Below” indicated this, “Running Scared” cements it. He’s the real thing, and with a big part in Clint Eastwood’s ambitious Iwo Jima movie(s) “Flags of Our Fathers” on the horizon this could just be HIS year. So, for what it’s worth… yeah, I was wrong.
As for the movie…
Where. The. Hell. Did. This. COME FROM!!?? Wayne Kramer’s previous effort, “The Cooler,” was a clever, small-ish Vegas character caper. Decent little movie, decent little run. But if there was EVER any indication that Mr. Kramer had a movie like “Running Scared” in him, I missed it. And I seriously doubt I’d have missed it. Regardless, lemme be as direct as I can: People, get your ass to the theater right now and SEE THIS MOVIE.
This, folks… this right here is what “exploitation” filmmaking is all about. The mainstream critics are poo-pooing it as “Tarantino-wannabe,” which is proof-positive that they don’t “get” this sort of film the same way they still don’t REALLY get Tarantino and his ilk: This isn’t the kind of film that “school” makes, it’s the kind of film that inspires the kind of films they make. This is real, raw, visionary viscera that draws a bead on the audience’s best and worst reaction triggers and opens fire. It goes brutal where lesser films would play soft, speeds up where lesser films would slow down, prolongs for tension what lesser films would rush through or skip outright. Where lesser films would settle for going over the top, “Running Scared” declares that there is no top. There’s no real way to “prepare” yourself for movies like this, but those of you already immersed in the brilliance of “The Professional,” “Dead or Alive,” “Boondock Saints” or “The Warriors” have a jump on everyone else.
The trailers have already told you the setup: Walker’s Joey Gazelle is a family man who pulls his coin disposing of used weapons for his low-level mafioso pals. Turns out that for “insurance” he’s actually been keeping the guns hidden in his house, a decision that turns disasterous when a unique-looking snub nosed revolver used in the shooting of a dirty cop goes missing and slugs start popping up on the street. Joey hits the Jersey night scene on a mission to find the gun and whoever took it.
This is the essence of exploitation crime thrillers: A simple cops-and-robbers yarn “juiced” with colorful extras for maximum effect. Here, the “extras” turn up courtesy of a paralell storyline the trailers have negated to tell you: The gun was stolen by Joey’s 10 year-old next door neighbor Oleg (Cameron Bright,) best friend to Joey’s son. He’s used it to put a bullet through his meth-addicted, wife-beating monster of a father, Anzo, and now he’s on the run, too. Oh, and Anzo is an on-bad-terms crony of Russian mobsters that Joey’s Italian mafia bosses are in league with.
Downtown New Jersey is not a good place for a 10 year-old to be, especially so Oleg who’s kind of a magnet for trouble: he’s menaced by ghoulish homeless junkies, throttled by drug dealers, makes an enemy of a psychotic pimp, a corrupt cop with an agenda (Chazz Palmentari) has turned a mostly-healed Anzo loose to hunt him down, and he’s largely unaware that Joey is looking for him and might not have his best interests at heart. Child-endangerment hasn’t been this effectively exploited for susepense since “Lemony Snickett.”
This is, absolutely, naked-and-spreading manipulation, and it works: As Joey darts around an ever-unfolding conspiracy involving the missing gun, the two mobs and his “friends;” little Oleg just keeps running from one nail-biter situation to another, with each “escape” descending further and further through ever-worsening levels of depravity and darkness. And when he reaches the bottom… oh, man… does he ever reach the bottom. I won’t tell you what squirming-in-your-seat form of evil incarnate Oleg will have to face down just to escape to the 3rd act, but I’ll tell you that a noteworthy number of my fellow theatre-goers fled at the revelation of it, leaving myself and others to remain in horror and disbelief, wonder where ANY major studio got the stones to let a sophmore director go HERE for a B-plot in a thriller. I don’t disturb easily, but here I sit and my psyche is STILL putting itself back together, folks.
There’s more, much more. You won’t believe the kinds of things Joey is willing to do to people just to extract information from semi-random bit-players… Jack Bauer would call this guy a loose canon. And I’m still in awe that someone actually found a staging ground for a mafia torture scene that I can’t remember ever being used before. Kramer brought his A-game to this, no question.
But this is the best part: It’s smart. Whip-smart, in fact, and clever to boot. With real humanity and depth to the people populating it’s sick, seedy world. Family and friendship dynamics are put through eight different wringers, twists and secrets are revealed at a rapid clip, creating primary characters who are nearly all much different people to us at the end of their story than at the start. Even the rabid, beastial Anzo is afforded both a sad, pathetic “origin” for his rotten ways, and a surprising backstory that turns him into a kind of wretchedly-tragic figure. Red herrings stalk the screen looking like anything but, while what first appear to be worn out genre cliche’s like villians capping henchmen to show off are reworked into slick expository reveals.
Add to all that the creepy, harsh cinematography and super-professional compositions, the smashing free-form bloodletting… the gun battles… the set design… dear lord, THE HOCKEY…
How many more ways can I say this, guys? 2006 is barely two months old and ALREADY I’ve got a likely entry into my top ten list. This is incredible genre filmmaking, and we need more movies like it just like we need more directors with the vision (and balls) of Wayne Kramer. Does some of it feel, when all is said and done, slightly extraneous with an eye on audience-jabbing? Absolutely, but not much and so what? A few twists too many come act 3? Maybe… but it NEVER jumps the rails in any significant way. Good films succeed in spite of oddities and minor flaws, GREAT FILMS succeed because of oddities and “flaws.” This is one of the great ones.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
Footnote: Cameron Bright continues to impress as a young actor, and Kramer makes great use of the young rising talent’s trademark thousand-yard-stare. But for pity’s sake… His last four movies were “Butterfly Effect,” “Godsend,” “Birth” and now this… can’t someone please cast him in a movie he’s old enough to go see?? The poor kid…