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RUNNING SCARED

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Paul Walker, Cameron Bright, Vera Farmiga, Karel Roden, Johnny Messner, Chazz Palminteri
Director: Wayne Kramer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 6.1 ES
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: New Line Cinema
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: June 6, 2006

“Dead guys tell no tales.”

Film ****

There are films that go way over the top, and then there’s this. How’s that for indicating what kind of movie is in store for an audience?

Lately, it seems that a lot of today’s movies, or as I should put it “studio executives”, want to play it safe and don’t want to offend anyone with graphic subject matter, in particularly that of violence. True, some films aren’t made for everyone, but at the same time there’s an audience for each type of movie. And I have always been a fan of action thrillers that don’t hold anything back, and push the envelope as far as it can go. Running Scared is the best example of this kind of movie. It hit a nerve in me. Never in such a long time had I seen such a sick, twisted, gritty, disturbing, blood-soaked piece of cinematic pulp. And I loved every second of it! 

The movie opens with a pure bang, no pun intended. If anything, it illustrates exactly what kind of ride the audience is in for. A drug deal is going down between New Jersey mobsters and a Jamaican gang in a downtown apartment complex. The deal is interrupted by a couple of masked men armed with shotguns. Gunfire is unleashed, leaving many casualties, including one of the masked men, who turns out to be a cop.

Enter Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), a 12 year associate of the mafia gang whose job entirely consists of the disposing of guns used in such matters. Following the surprise from the cops, Joey is ordered to rid the gun used in the killing of the masked cop. That way it can never be traced during an investigation.

Sounds like a routine assignment, but Joey decides to make a stop at home for dinner and some quality time with the wife. This odd move results in the unthinkable. As Joey enjoys dinner with his wife and son, bullets spring through their window. The reasons for this I’ll leave unmentioned, but Joey’s worst fear comes true, as the very gun he was assigned to get rid of disappears from right where he stashed it early in the evening.

Thus begins the intense, nightmarish race across town that Joey embarks on in an attempt to recover the gun. He soon finds himself eluding not just the investigating police, led by the suspicious Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri), but his very own mob crew, who become even more suspicious of him. And if that wasn’t enough, a rival gang of Russian mobsters get thrown into the mix. To make a long story short, Joey has to scramble and cover his tracks fast before things go from worse to horrible.

Writer/director Wayne Kramer, who wrote and directed the 2003 independent hit The Cooler and co-wrote the screenplay for the heavily underrated thriller Mindhunters, has truly made a name for himself with this film. There’s no question that he will be compared to that of Quentin Tarantino in terms of how violent he’s allowed his film to be. Truth be told, Kramer has surpassed QT in the violence department, which is saying something.

The opening sequence is one of the most intense beginning scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The way in which Kramer uses technical tricks, in addition to gleefully capturing the impact of every single flying bullet, will definitely garner a reaction of some kind from whoever watches it. In my case, I was awestruck. But that scene is a walk in the park compared to a scene late in the film. Joey is cornered by his crew and Russians in a hockey rink. It’s a sequence of such sheer brutality, it’s almost impossible to shake. Again, I was mesmerized by how far the movie went in this regard.

I must also applaud Kramer for a bold quality. I’m assuming that he must have snuck passed the MPAA ratings board with a number of scenes. Either that or the MPAA members were asleep the day they screened it, which is fine by me since the ratings system is a screwed up system these days. Kramer got away with moments that, I’m almost certain, would get an NC-17 rating. If I was him, I’d be as happy as a clam that this purely intense cut of the film made it to multiplexes. If a more extreme and unrated Director’s Cut makes it to DVD, I’ll be both surprised and excited.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie is the performance of Paul Walker, an actor who up until now, I’ve never cared for. In most of his past films, Walker always seem to come across as one-dimensional in nearly every performance. The one movie I always gave him credit for was Joy Ride, but elsewhere on his resume, in particular both Fast and the Furious movies, his acting was nearly unbearable, as all that it consisted of was one dull line reading after another. As far as I could tell, Walker had become a star on account of his pretty-boy looks. It’s no secret that he has a huge female fan base.

Either Walker got his act together or hired a new acting coach, because after watching him in Running Scared, I am quick to take back every negative thing I ever said, unless of course I’m forced to sit through 2 Fast 2 Furious again. All kidding aside, Walker unleashes a great amount of intensity in his performance to match the mood of the movie itself. I bought him in the role thoroughly, and there were even some points in the film where his bits of rage, which are frequent, induced a bit of fear in me. In other words, this is one character that you’d never want to tick off. I never thought I’d be giving Walker these kinds of complements, but I’m happy to see him give an actual performance.

The supporting cast is also quite phenomenal. Vera Farmiga is outstanding as Joey’s suffering wife who gets in way over her head during this wild and crazy night. Johnny Messner is remarkably intense as Joey’s mafia superior. And then there’s Chazz Palminteri, who with little screen time turns in a career highlight of a performance as the ruthless and dirty cop Rydell.

Running Scared is without question the first fantastic film of the year, and I can tell you right off the bat that it will certainly be hard to top. Audiences that are thirsting for something a lot more intense and extreme than what’s normally served on today’s cinematic dish, as I was, are going to be blown away. In my opinion, it will become a cherished piece of “pulp fiction” for years to come.

Video ****

New Line never fails at delivering a stellar looking release, and Running Scared is certainly one of the best offerings I’ve seen from the studio. Wayne Kramer applied a truly gritty look to match the gritty nature of the film. Some shots appear grainy, only because it was intended. This movie represents the absolute best use of lighting and colors I’ve seen in a long, long time. Kramer’s use of color, especially in the hockey rink sequence late in the film, is absorbing and mind blowing and this video performance does every bit of justice to the uncompromising look of it. Image quality is thoroughly clear and crisp, and the all around detail is outstanding. Definitely a contender for best looking release of the year.

Audio ****

The same high marks can be said for the audio department, as New Line’s fantastic sounding release is very much in the running for Best Sound. Both the 5.1 Dolby mix and, especially, the 6.1 DTS ES track excel in delivering the high octane bang that one should get from such a film experience as this. Right from the beginning, the surround sound channels get extensive play, from the riveting opening gun battle right down to the ferocious hockey rink showdown; all you get is show-stopping sound quality. Since there’s plenty of gunfire to go around, the sound makes good use of that. Dialogue delivery and music playback are also delivered in tremendous form. Truly, this is one piece of audio that’s a perfect to show off a sound system with.

Features ***

Even with a little, New Line knows how to make the most of its features. The disc includes a commentary track with writer/director Wayne Kramer, which is one of the best commentaries I’ve heard in a long time. If you’re as intrigued by the filmmaking as I was, then you’ll love the details which Kramer reveals in this commentary. Also featured is well made documentary titled, “Through the Looking Glass: The Making of Running Scared”, two storyboard comparisons designed by Wayne Kramer, and a thrilling Theatrical Trailer.

Summary:

As I mentioned earlier, to many “play-it-safe” films get made more often than the kinds of gritty, hard edged films that should get made Running Scared is the kind of film I’ve been waiting to come across for the longest time. It’s a real film that displays true filmmaking artistry. Wayne Kramer can very much be considered this generation’s Sam Peckinpah. A bold and brilliant blood soaked masterpiece, and thus far the best film of 2006!

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