Sure to someday be a cult favorite, Running Scared is a movie where everything goes wrong over the course of one night. You know those types of films, right? Where one event triggers a whole lot more, all spiraling downward and out of control? Running Scared‘s catalyst involves a child shooting his abusive father with a pistol he stole from a low-ranking criminal who was supposed to destroy it because it shot a cop but instead hid it in his basement. Wow. That’s a lot of stuff to cover and we’re only at the first incident.
The pistol in question — I believe it was a .38, you gun nuts — becomes the story’s MacGuffin. Most of the film revolves around finding the gun before either the cops or the rest of the criminals do. The protagonist is Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), and he has to both find this pistol and also figure out where the kid is so that he can make sure the kid doesn’t tell anyone where the gun was from. Or perhaps that it was a different gun. Just nothing that leads back to him, because he was supposed to get rid of the gun, not hide it in his basement where his own kid or his kid’s friend — the eventual shooter — could find it.
The film is a race against time and across the city, bringing both Joey and the kid, Oleg (Cameron Bright), to many interesting and dangerous locations. Often apart, they have to figure out ways to get themselves either to safety or to the next location on their scavenger hunt, all while avoiding cops, the other gangsters, and pretty much anyone else, if they can avoid it.
Obviously, we wouldn’t have a movie if they could avoid getting into trouble. A kind prostitute, an insanely creepy couple, and a hockey rink lit with black light all feature, and I’m sure I’ve left out more than a couple of things. It comes as a surprise that Running Scared clocks in at just over two hours, as its frantic pace and never-ending series of events makes it feel like far less. I don’t think it’s possible to feel bored while watching this movie. Creeped out, disgusted, or unnerved, perhaps, but not bored.
Yes, Running Scared is not for everyone. It’s not for children, first and foremost, and not just because every third word felt like a profanity, or that the characters at one point meet at a strip club. It’s also incredibly violent and contains a sequence in which Oleg winds up in the care of a pedophilic couple. And if luring children wasn’t enough, the couple also kills them. Children watching the film either might not get this or if they do, have nightmares. You might have nightmares if you’re an adult.
That means the film is effective, doesn’t it? If it can linger in your mind, almost for any reason other than “it was so bad I can’t stop thinking about it” means that it’s likely done its job. And, yes, it’s tough to get some of the images Running Scared presents out of your mind. It’s often very over-the-top in its presentation, and if handled with less care would likely be an unintentional comedy, but because it basks in its ridiculousness it actually kind of works straight up.
If you are someone who prefers more art house-style films, Running Scared will not be for you. It’s also probably not for you if you’re too accustomed to Hollywood action-thrillers, because this one doesn’t play it safe and it will shock you. I almost feel like I’m overselling it but the audacity that its filmmakers had in making it reminds me just how dull so many Hollywood films can be. This one is pure, over-stylized trash, but that’s often more enjoyable and effective than generic.
Running Scared is the type of film that will be called “tasteless” and dismissed by a large number of people. That’s why, in the opening, I called it a film destined to have a cult following. It won’t be largely accepted by the mainstream, and many so-called “snobs” will look down on it and anyone who happens to enjoy it, but it will find a devoted fanbase who will watch it every year or two just to appreciate its over-the-top and absolutely insane two hours. I might just wind up being one of them.
More shocking than the plot, the style, and the content of the film, are the performances, which are surprisingly good. It’s not a big stretch to think that Vera Fermiga, who plays the lead’s wife, is excellent, but if you would have told me an exploitation crime movie would have Paul Walker and Cameron Bright turning in very good work, I likely wouldn’t have believed you. Walker is raw, gritty, and nothing like the PG-13 handsome block of wood you often expect. Bright mostly just has to look scared, but he does that well. The gangsters are suitably menacing, although I couldn’t tell one apart from the others.
Running Scared is noisy, trashy, over-the-top, and silly enough that you almost have to take it seriously. Does that make sense? I feel like it doesn’t but there aren’t many other ways to describe it. It feels like it goes by in a flash, it has surprisingly good performances, and while it may offend or repulse, it won’t bore. It’s not for everyone, but those in its target audience are going to find something they’ll really like.