After meeting him face-to-face, I was taken with how tough behind the eyes he was. I knew I could cut and darken his hair and give him a few scars and such, but I was most impressed with how he just pinned me down with those cold blues.
—Wayne Kramer on Paul Walker
Paul Walker’s excellent tough-guy adventure begins with the proverbial bang. He first appears in Running Scared in a brief bit of chaos, his face beaten, bruised, and cut up. Roaring down the road with the asthmatic child Oleg (Cameron Bright) in his passenger seat, Walker’s Joey looks determined and do-gooding, even if he is driving like a crazy man. Oh yes, he’s got reasons, indicated in the cut back to “18 hours earlier,” when Joey’s at work, namely, serving as Italian mobster muscle during a drug deal that goes very bad.
The exchange is predictably interrupted by a crew of ski-masked, black-leather-jacketed mugs (“Everybody! Eat the fuckin’ floor!”), at which point Joey’s boss, rock-em-sock-em Tommy Perello (Johnny Messner) takes personal affront. The masked men can shoot all “the mooks” they want, but spilling “Perello blood,” well, that’ll cost them. Feathers fly and limbs flail as the camera lurches from weapon to victim to bloody wound, with a couple of deft I-know-my-Tarantino moves: a man blasted into a wall by a shotgun, with bright blue shell flying toward the camera; another shot in the crotch, the dread of the damage underlined by a bit of rewind action (this gun is pointed here). This mayhem leads to more, when Joey’s assigned to “get rid of” the guns involved, an especially important task, as it turns out the ski-masked victims are cops. “Don’t fuck it up,” says Tommy.
Well, he does. But before you decide whether to see how he does, you can check the film’s first six minutes yourself. While the kinetic action and frenzied camerawork are sometimes thrilling and mostly hyper-stylized, a series of nods to previous films and makers (Running Scared is dedicated to Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, and Walter Hill, an eclectic group of artists with similar interests in the poetry of violence (Peckinpah also considers the costs). But the movie’s gonzo energy, an easy hook, also detracts from its thematic complexities, eventually reducing them to clichés without frames or challenges.
Still, there’s something to be said for Paul Walker’s effort here, as he’s so plainly trying to show “range,” following his best performance to date, as the man with sled dogs in last weekend’s box office winner, Eight Below. Less impressive is his resort to a dese and dose inflection, which sounds more like he’s watched a lot of Sopranos than dug into Joey. At the same time, he does appear to appreciate what’s brilliant about Vera Farmiga, who plays Joey’s long-suffering wife Teresa. On the other hand, you might want to see Paul Walker get his face smacked—repeatedly and viciously, by hockey pucks, a special and rather spectacular torture dreamed up by the Yugorskys, Russian mobsters who believe he’s wronged them.
These would be related to Oleg’s abusive, John Wayne-loving stepfather Anzor (Karel Roden), and they’re angry that their tweaker varmint of a relative has been shot—by his own stepson. The fact that Oleg found the gun in Joey’s hiding place—that it was used in the cop killings—means that Joey spends much of the film chasing down the bullet in the wall, the bullet in Anzor’s shoulder, and finally, the gun, which wends its way across town in a bizarrely serendipitous manner. But even as the film thematizes accident and regret, it maintains its aesthetic remove: the kid’s emotional blankness, Anzor’s cartoonish excess, even Joey’s frantic work to keep all contained—are reduced to fast cuts and zappy pans. It looks cool, sometimes disquieting (too close up), but it’s not precisely probing. It gives good surface.
Like, say, Grand Theft Auto, the movie careens, one episode not quite leading to another, but each escalating the depravity gauge. And like, say, Sin City, Running Scared adopts a graphic novelish look, pacing, and opening credits markers—only without the graphic novel origin (you can see the graphic novel version of the first six minutes). Though Joey seems endlessly able to take the next step in his pursuit of the gun, the gangsters he’s up against are so broadly caricatured that it’s not long before they’re more tiresome than nervous-making.
The men in such worlds tend to be grandly masculine, hard-eyed, stiff-jawed, typically clueless, and not much for soul-searching articulations like, say, a Marv (Mickey Rourke). They’re shamelessly corny and unsurprising: how many times have you seen Chazz Palminteri play some version of the corrupt, Brooklynish Detective Rydell? And what is the fascination with the self-inflating, big-chested pimp (here named Lester and played by David Warshofsky)? By contrast, of course, Joey looks righteous, in his anguish and aggression, both at home and dislocated in this gonzo gun-fest. As it’s rendered in throbbing close-ups and whomping cuts, his story is mostly paced to make you overlook the absurdity and just enjoy the “ride.”
As much as it becomes his plot, Joey’s pain—the hockey puckish abuse stands out—also aligns him with the women and kids. That is, not only Teresa and Oleg, but also his own son Nicky (Alex Neuberger), trusting and uncomprehending, and Anzor’s meth-addicted wife Mila (Ivana Milicevic), who imagined once that America held promise, a notion the film works overtime to obliterate and then resurrect, clumsily. For the most part, this “America” (called Grimley, New jersey) is a hell of twisty paybacks, turning downright screwy once Teresa tracks down the missing Oleg, who’s been kidnapped into a kiddie porn-making household, a scary too-bright apartment stuffed with toys and cameras and overseen by the Desperate Housewives-looking couple Dez (Bruce Altman) and Edele (Elizabeth Mitchell).
In this completely odd “terrible place,” Teresa has stumbled into her own version of the stalker flick, where she’s the Last Girl, facing choices she can’t imagine. And so she takes up the vengeful violence that she’s lamented in her husband, only hers is almost excessively motivated. It’s not just macho pride working in her brain, it’s a grasp, suddenly, of the utter depravity that lies behind all pretty facades: yes, there are worse evils than thugs who shoot each other because they can. Nutty and surreal, even poetic in its way, Teresa’s trajectory here becomes instantly and infinitely more compelling than Joey’s mundane storyline. Her moment is brief and weird. And that’s enough.