The first things we hear in “Running Scared” are a gunshot and the F-word. Let it not be said that “Running Scared” misleads the audience about its tone.
In the first real surprise of 2006, writer/director Wayne Kramer (“The Cooler”) delivers a curiously entertaining film that’s elaborately plotted, unflaggingly violent and at times jaw-droppingly bizarre — and that stars Paul Walker to boot.
How Walker managed to wander into an original, interesting movie, I have no idea, but he acquits himself very well. Armed with a New Jersey accent — which eliminates his usual surfer-boy dumb-guy dialect — he plays Joey Gazelle, a low-level mobster whose job is to dispose of guns after they’ve been used in crimes. His wife, Teresa (Vera Farmiga), with whom he has a crude sexual relationship, either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what he does for a living, and the two live with Joey’s aged father and their 10-year-old son Nick (Alex Neuberger) in the Jersey suburbs.
Next door to them is a boy named Oleg (Cameron Bright), an American-born Russian kid who is Nick’s best friend. Oleg’s father, Ivan (John Noble), is an abusive, meth-crazed lunatic with John Wayne’s face tattooed on his back. Oleg’s mother (Ivana Milecevic) was a Moscow hooker before Ivan brought her here. One night when the abuse becomes too much, Oleg takes the gun he found in the Gazelle family’s basement and shoots his dad in the shoulder.
Problem A is that rather than disposing of these guns, Joey has been keeping them hidden (not well enough, apparently) in his basement. Problem B is that this particular gun was used to kill a bunch of crooked cops, which means the police will be looking for it. Problem C is that Ivan is tied up with the Russian mob, which makes his being shot newsworthy in certain circles, which means there will be inquiries … which means for his own sake, Joey needs to get that gun back from Oleg and dispose of it for real.
For the rest of the night, he searches for Oleg, ducks his mob associates (who want assurance that the gun used to shoot Ivan was not one of theirs), and tries to steer clear of a dirty cop named Rydell (Chazz Palminteri), who suspects Joey was involved in the shooting and who has ties to both mob groups.
But the more intriguing story is Oleg’s. Frightened and on the run, he scrambles through a bizarre urban fairy tale, bouncing from one nightmarish situation to another. He rescues a whore from her abusive pimp, is briefly held hostage by city-park drug dealers, and, in the film’s most out-of-nowhere, what the HELL?!? sequence, encounters a husband-and-wife pair of pedophiles. If Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher shared a brain, developed a fever, then read “Hansel and Gretel” and “Oliver Twist” before falling asleep, they might dream of something like “Running Scared.”
The plot is a patchwork of coincidences and connections, some of which are truly ludicrous. But that seems to be the idea. The shadowy underworld characters are larger than life and intentionally unrealistic; the pimp wears a full-length fur coat, for example, and behaves like the Big Bad Wolf. The pedophiles’ shadows appear monstrous when seen through a beveled glass window, with elongated, claw-like fingers — clearly modern-day stand-ins for witches or ogres. And Oleg, like a figure in a Grimm fairy tale, is scared of what’s happening, but still resourceful enough to evade serious harm, and he’s never so terrified as to distress the audience.
Contrasting the otherworldliness of the story is the cinematography (by Jim Whitaker), which is starkly realistic and harshly lit. The colors are desaturated so that everything appears cool blue, steel gray or washed-out altogether. The camerawork and editing — the latter courtesy of Arthur Coburn, a frequent Sam Raimi collaborator — complement the gritty, violent content of the film, with emphasis on skewed angles, quick cuts and impossible tracking shots (like moving through a window, across a yard and through another window) that suggest an unseen omniscient storyteller.
The film is consistently intense, never dull, yet rarely what you’d call “exciting.” There are times when it appears to have lost its way in the woods of its own devising, getting further and further away from its original path. But you keep watching because you want to see what’s around the bend. Is a hockey puck used as a torture device? Absolutely. Does someone blow up a house with a gas leak and a cigarette lighter? Of course they do. Does everyone live happily ever after? Well not everyone, no. But someone has to. It is a fairy tale, after all.
B (2 hrs., 2 min.; )