Toward the close of this high-tech action movie, grungy protagonist Joey Gazelle, played by Paul Walker–a small-time New Jersey wiseguy scrambling to recover a stolen gun, which he was supposed to have destroyed, that could tie his bosses to a cop killing–is tortured by being held down on an ice rink while a hockey player slams several pucks directly into his forehead. The guy doesn’t suffer any particular physical harm from the exercise, it appears–not even a headache, if his subsequent heroics are any indication–but the scene nonetheless serves a useful function: it provides a perfect metaphor for how an unhappy viewer might expect to feel after spending two hours watching this raucous, violent, extremely unsavory tale of underworld shenanigans, which is technically so fast and furious–to use a phrase its star will surely be familiar with–that it’s the visual equivalent of an assault. “Running Scared” resembles a rerun of “Domino” with the female lead replaced by a male one, and like that brain-numbing movie, it’s almost impossible to sit through without both laughing at its absurdity and being repelled by its technique.
The picture opens with a grotesque shootout in a slum apartment, photographed and edited for maximum impact, in which a bunch of drug-dealing mobsters waste a trio of thugs trying to steal their loot, only to find that the dead guys are dirty cops. Knowing the heat this could bring down on them, the crooks’ leader Tommy “Tombs” Perello (Johnny Messner)–who just happens to be the local mob boss’s son–orders his lackey Joey to dispose of the gun he’d used to off one of the cops. But the fellow instead stashes it in the basement of the house he shares with his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and son Nicky (Alex Neuberger), only to have it lifted by the boy’s next-door pal Oleg (Cameron Bright)–a Ukrainian kid who uses the piece to shoot his abusive father Anzor (Karel Roden), who just happens to be a minor figure in a rival gang, before taking off into the darkness. What follows is a complicated night’s business, during which Joey desperately tries to track down Oleg while keeping his bosses from learning that incriminating gun is out there someplace. The convoluted chase eventually involves not only Joey, Teresa, Nicky, Oleg, his mother Mila (Ivana Milicevic), Anzor, Perello father and son (along with their assorted confederates), the Ukrainian gang chief, his crew, and another crooked cop (Chazz Palminteri), but also a Latino restaurant worker, his card playing buddies, an aging hooker (Idalis DeLeon), and her flashy pimp (David Warshofsky)–not to mention a repellent couple (Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell) who specialize in child molestation. It’s a thoroughly loathsome bunch among whom Joey and his family necessarily stand out as comparatively decent folk.
What “Running Scared” is aiming for, one supposes, is a Hitchcockian tale of a man desperately tying to extricate himself from circumstances that could spell his doom, but told in the most florid and gruesome contemporary style, similar to that of a comic-book. Unfortunately, the combination doesn’t work. The narrative contrivances make it impossible to put the slightest bit of credence in the chain of events–stupid coincidences abound–and some segments, like the episode involving that child-snatching duo, are entirely gratuitous, adding nothing but an extra dose of disgust to the mix. The visual razzmatazz is intended, one supposes, to camouflage the plot holes, but all it does is make one dizzy; that over-the-top initial massacre is only the opening salvo in what amounts to an orgy of technical overkill. But all the flashy camerawork, changing film stocks, desaturated colors and razor-sharp editing in the world can’t hide the fact that the movie is utterly vacuous, an exercise in stylistic ugliness that exhausts us more to watch it than it must have done its makers in putting it together. And director Wayne Kramer encourages the cast to overdo things to a ridiculous degree, doubtlessly to fit in with the background hubbub, with Warshofsky, Messner, Roden and Arthur J. Nascarella (as the elder Perello) the worst offenders, but only by a hair. As for Walker, he’s totally unconvincing, coming across like a California surfer dude trying to act like a member of the Soprano clan. Of course, the closing twist–which you’ll see coming from miles away–might be taken to justify his wrongness for the part. But that still doesn’t make the strong strain of sentimentality that’s part of the plot line about the kids throughout from being any more palatable when it positively bursts the seams at the end.
One of the narrative motifs of “Running Scared” is that Nicky is constantly being told to stay put while his elders go about some dangerous business. He never does, of course, but takes off the first chance he gets. If you find yourself in an auditorium where this stiff is showing, you’d be well advised to escape as soon as possible, too. It really is a frighteningly garish, over-directed mess.