February 23, 2006
Paul Walker is Joey Gazelle, a two-bit New Jersey wiseguy whose duties mostly involve disposing of used firearms. Joey lives with hit wife (Vera Farmiga) and son (Alex Neuberger) next door to rival two-bit Russian mobster Anzor (Karel Roden), abusive father to Oleg (Cameron Bright). When Oleg steals a soon-to-be-ditched piece from Joey's trove, he sets off a string of violence that leads both of them off into the night, where they encounter an string of ever-worsening villains including junkies, pimps, pedophiles, crooked cops and evil hockey players. Joey just wants to go home, but first he has to survive the night.
The first thing you have to know about "Running Scared" is that it's a fairy tale. Two innocent boys and the not-so-innocent Joey have to journey into the darkness, facing a string of disenfranchised outcasts. Some of the fairy tale references are overt, built into character names, pieces of production design and lighting effects. There are trolls and ogres, but there are also good fairies and helpful eccentrics. Dueling with that iconography is a conception of "Running Scared" as a deconstructed Western, all about outlaw heroes and nefarious black-hats, while other moments seem determined to be ultra-realistic, "City of God"-style fun.
It's either gutsy or maniacal of Kramer to attempt all of these different things. Viewers will experience whiplash trying to figure out which plot points should be taken literally and which are figurative, which characters are caricatures because the actors weren't prevented from gnawing scenery and which performers were instructed to be operatic. The movie is 119 minutes of scenes that must have sounded like a good idea in a pitch meeting. A climax in an black-lit ice-skating rink? Wacky! A hustler who boldly admits, "I'm a Mack Daddy Pimp"? Daring! Two hours of point-of-view shots and over-saturated photography? Arduous!
Kramer's casting strategy involved take the blandest actor he could find and plunking him amidst all this insanity in the hopes that some of the darkness would rub off. It works to the extent that Paul Walker gives a different kind of performance than we've ever seen from him. However, with a stronger leading man -- a Matt Damon or an Ed Norton -- maybe the movie would have had a human center. Walker isn't commanding enough to match gravity with Farmiga -- she's like Claire Forlani with talent -- or the preternaturally mature Bright. When a scene-stealer comes on screen -- like Roden or Chazz Palminteri -- Walker's invisible.
With a bit more dark comedy and an active editor, "Running Scared" could have been trimmed into an "After Hours" for the new millennium. Kramer seems to have had bigger goals. This is a much more interesting movie than Kramer's "The Cooler" debut, but that doesn't make it good.