Dir. Wayne Kramer, U.S., 2006
by Nick Pinkerton
Hey, kids, do you like violence? Well, step into to the multiplex exploitation circuit, circa 2006: flip, Grand Theft Auto nihilism, a bulging pocketbook, and Quarterback-blandsome leading man, Paul Walker. A hot .38 snub-nose, linked to the killing of a crooked cop, goes missing from the Jersey home of workaday Cosa Nostra soldier Joey Gazelle (Walker, perhaps the screen’s least likely Sicilian-American—this is a movie that doesn’t sweat the details), filched by his pre-adolescent son’s Russian friend Oleg (Cameron Bright), a neighbor who puts it to use on his abusive, John Wayne-obsessive dad (Karel Roden), then runs away. And they’re off!: Joey needs to cover up the trail that could lead ballistics to his doorstep by getting his piece back from the kid, which launches them on a nocturnal voyage past grotesque pimps, pushers, and pedophiles that ends in Brighton Beach, with the principles at the intersection of the Russian and Sicilian mobs.
Director Wayne Kramer was the initial reason I’d been interested in Running Scared—not because I’d admired his previous work, but because I thought, “Huh, the guitarist from MC5 directed a movie?” Serves me right for not doing any homework—turns out the film’s writer/ director is just some South African–bred boob who (you can tell this without having to check) cut his teeth doing commercial work before bringing his Unique Vision of exhausting cleverness to the big screen. On the commentary track, you can listen to him reel off a meaningless string of buzzwords, as though he’s still pitching his movie—take a shot of bourbon every time Kramer says “dark” and “gritty” and you’ll be out cold before the credits roll.
“This guy’s all flash, no soul,” said William H. Macy, criticizing the new resident crooner at his casino in Kramer’s overrated feature debut, The Cooler, holding the new nightclub talent up unfavorably against Paul Sorvino’s old-school holdover from Rat Pack-era Vegas. That’s about all anybody needs to say about how Kramer’s Running Scared stacks up against its alleged inspirations; says Kramer, in the DVD’s circle-jerk “Making of” vignette: “I wanted to go back and do an example of a Seventies, early-Eighties crime genre.” The closing credits, in according movie-brat style, dedicate this film to Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, and Walter Hill.
That’s all just so much red herring. You’ll have to soldier through the commentary track that accompanies this jumble of cross-processed film, flash-frames, pinball machine-gaudy lighting, Steadicam hokey-pokey, and jacked-up jitter, if you want confirmation of this movie’s real Patron Saint: Kramer cites Tony Scott’s Man on Fire as the inspiration for his incorporation of hand-cranked footage (if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best, right?) into Running Scared. You could call Kramer’s accretion of “technique” stylish—but that’s about the same as calling someone wearing twenty loudly clashing, very expensive shirts “well-dressed.” “It’s just two hours of hard-edged entertainment that I would hope people could feel like they’re taking a bit of a nostalgic trip back in time to when films were actually made this way,” insists the director over the commentary—ah, to return to the halcyon days of Domino ! There were giants, then! Kramer’s literal-minded stylistic vocabulary is just so much thudding virtuosity: a shaky camera puts us “nervous and off-balance.” That dolly ducking in-and-up at Paul Walker’s stubbly resolve is “intense.” Endless sequence shots appear, designed in hopes that you’ll gasp: “How did they do that?” The answer: Who gives a shit?
I’d be remiss not to mention Running Scared’s benefaction from the promiscuously enthusiastic Pope of the New Trash Cinema, Quentin Tarantino (poster quote: “Moviemaking from the pelvis!”—true, but only in the sense that the camera seems to be perpetually overcompensating for something). It’s worth wondering: is there anything Q.T. doesn’t endorse? At work in Kramer’s movie is the same street-tuff posturing that Tarantino cops, clannish lowlifes exhaling profanities and racial epithets (a gun isn’t just shiny, it’s “polished up like a spic’s hubcap”) with every other breath—and that faux-“mack daddy” white pimp seems a deliberate throwback to Gary Oldman’s baffling character in the Tony Scott–helmed True Romance, from which The Cooler liberally pilfered.
The movie’s efforts to breach “realism” end at the dialogue; though its alleged setting is the NYC Metro area, established by the cast’s adherence to the “dese-dem-dose” Guido accent group, Running Scared was largely shot in the Czech Republic, lending an air of generic “nightmare urbanity” to the film, with Communist-era block flats awkwardly standing in for the projects—the Brighton Beach section of Kramer’s film makes the Little Odessa scenes in Lord of War (“You make terrible borscht, Vitaly”) seem as lived-in as James Gray’s Little Odessa. The explanation, I guess, is that we’re watching some out-of-time-and-place parable: Running Scared’s closing credits recap the movie, in ghoulish cartoon graphics, as a little-boy-lost nightmare odyssey—take a shot every time Kramer says “Grimm’s fairy tale” on the commentary track and you’ll have to call off work tomorrow. As per that tenuously established point of reference (Kramer is no Matthew Bright, and certainly no Laughton—he cites Night of the Hunter as an antecedent), child endangerment is the most-relied-upon tool in this film’s box-of-shocks: Joey crams a gun into the face of a mother holding her child, and little Oleg runs afoul of a suburban-Hoboken Myra Hinkley and Ian Brady couple who shoot pedophilic snuff in their Playland apartment.
This affords Kramer’s script a craven opportunity to hand out phony-baloney empowerment as Joey’s wife, Teresa (the very sexy, underutilized Vera Farmiga), is summoned to the rescue to, unblinkingly, deliver vigilante justice, execution-style, to everyone’s favorite bête noires: Sadean yuppie pedophiles. We’re meant to stand up and whoop and cheer because, come on, who likes kiddie porn mavens? It was in one of those bits of thematic serendipity that, immediately prior to seeing Running Scared, I’d watched Joseph Losey’s superb American retelling of M, which resolves, or rather doesn’t, at the insoluble dilemma of how to administer justice to a mentally unbalanced child killer; the contrast between that film’s soulful pulp and Running Scared’s pandering is enough to give lie to all the dross about “grit” and filmmaking for “adult audiences” that Kramer likes to cough up. This is point-and-shoot drivel for X-Box 360 intellects—if the Brett Ratner producer credit isn’t enough to announce that glaringly obvious fact, this scene does.
Honestly though, I doubt I’d be quibbling over matters of ethics if Running Scared had any of the qualities that I admire in my trash: invested viciousness, invention, economy, purity of line… What was it that Oscar Wilde said? Of course: “There’s no such thing as moral exploitation. Exploitation is either well-made or badly made, that is all.” This is the latter, nearly two exhausting hours of Paul Walker bluffing, yowling, spitting, and cornering people against the walls to bang away and yell some more. It’s the soul of this movie, a maelstrom of misdirected energy, desperately, insistently trying to get a rise out of the audience it never found: Oh, someone being flung across the room by a shotgun blast? Fingers snapped in two? I see, yes. Pedophilic kidnappers? Yes, okay. Our hero taking a hockey puck to the skull? Yes, yes, okay. Blood and black lights? Shorn pussy? I get it, Wayne. Yes, Wayne. Please, just stop.