It's difficult to argue that Running Scared is not junk. Writer-director Wayne Kramer conjures up a hard-boiled urban nightmare in which he constantly ratchets up the level of depravity.
Welcome to the jungle. A preening pimp slams a hooker, face first, into the grill of his car. A pedophile couple chase a little boy through an apartment that resembles a fever dream of "Captain Kangaroo." A tidal wave of blood erupts from the mouth of a man who has just had a hockey puck smashed into his kisser. In Kramer's more refined 2003 picture, The Cooler, he elicited momentary gasps from the audience for a scene in which Alec Baldwin's irascible casino boss kicks a pregnant woman in the stomach. Well, in Running Scared (not to be confused with the comparatively milquetoast 1986 cop movie), Kramer maintains that level of shock and awe for nearly two hours.
If The Cooler was Kramer's noir-like take on a bedtime story, then Running Scared is his pulp version of a Grimm's fairytale. Paul Walker actually demonstrates an ability to act as Joey Gazelle, a reasonably good-hearted thug in the employ of crime boss Tommy Perello (Johnny Messner). The movie starts with a literal and figurative bang. In a seedy hotel room, the mobsters are in the midst of a drug deal when they are confronted by a group of masked, crooked cops. Guns are drawn, and the cops get the worst of the ensuing bloodbath. Tommy then instructs Joey to dispose of one of the murder weapons, a snub-nosed.38.
Instead, Joey goes home, feels up his sexy wife (Vera Farmiga) and hides the revolver in the basement. Well, wouldn't you know it, but the slightly creepy boy who lives next door, Oleg (Cameron Bright), steals the gun and turns it on his abusive stepfather (Karel Roden), a vicious Russian who cooks meth and nurses a serious obsession over John Wayne.
What follows is a blood-soaked pretzel of a plot in which the .38 in question, a MacGuffin if ever there was one, gets around more than Paris Hilton on holiday. Joey is desperate to recover Oleg and the gun. But hot on the trail are Tommy, Russian gangsters and a corrupt police detective (Chazz Palminteri). Along the way, poor Oleg -- perhaps the only character with a solid moral compass -- stumbles through a nocturnal landscape of vicious pimps and venal child pornographers.
Those searching for redeeming moral value in their art need not enter. Running Scared is ultra-violent, defiantly tasteless and often ugly. It is also, not coincidentally, a gripping and purely visceral experience. While Kramer has said he wanted to resurrect the exploitation crime flicks of the Seventies, this exercise in relentlessness is much more reminiscent of pulp comics. Indeed, the unnamed city of Running Scared just might be the funkiest hellhole of a town since Frank Miller began doodling "Sin City" on a sketch pad.
While no one will mistake this film for high art -- or even middlebrow art, for that matter -- you've got to admire the sheer audacity of Kramer's vision. Stylistically, Running Scared is a visual shotgun blast of quick edits, over-cranked film and inclined angles. Such gimmicks come perilously close to Tony Scott territory, but Kramer keeps the pyrotechnics from overwhelming some genuine surprises he lobs at the audience.
The plastic keepcase includes a nifty insert: a comic book adaptation of Running Scared illustrated by artist P.J. Loughran.
Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, the DVD's picture quality is first-rate. The image is crisp and void of dirt, aliasing or other noticeable defects. The film's look is sometimes grainy and bleached out, but that is by design, with Kramer borrowing a few pages from the Gospel of Tony Scott.
Viewers can select between Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete Sound and 2.0 Stereo Surround. The 5.1 and 6.1 tracks are outstanding, boasting a sound that is sharp and clean. The periodic volleys of gunfire spotlight an impressive immersion of sound. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Director Wayne Kramer's commentary track is informative, particularly when it comes to the technical aspects of his filmmaking, but he also reveals a disappointing lack of humor and even a hint of misogyny. Running Scared is adrenaline-charged, junky fun, but Kramer appears to take it -- and himself -- a bit too seriously. When he claims, for instance, that he believes it's important to always depict violence onscreen as brutal and ugly, the pretentiousness of the statement is a definite eye-roller.
Running Scared: Through the Looking Glass is an 18-minute, 30-second featurette that is several cuts above the typical promotional piece. Extensive interviews with Kramer and his cast are actually revealing, and it's a hoot to hear Vera Farmiga contend that "there's a very tender quality" to the movie. As far as this reviewer can tell, the only tenderness to be found here exists around bullet wounds.
The efficiency of storyboarding is apparent in two storyboarded scenes presented on the DVD. Storyboards to the opening shootout and the climactic bloodbath at the hockey rink are shown side-by-side with the final results that were filmed. Kramer stayed remarkably faithful to his storyboards, even down to canted angles.
The disc includes a theatrical trailer, as well as a smattering of previews.
Running Scared is definitely not for all tastes. Still, if you have a taste for the tasteless, this high-octane thriller can be mighty tasty.