While I do appreciate a big budget American action film from time to time, they rarely manage to break into my list of favorites. The main exceptions seem to come from a series of films that were released in the mid/late 00s, a period when commercial (Hollywood) cinema was allowed to be a little edgier. Wayne Kramer's Running Scared was one of those films, a surprise hit that I ended up liking a lot. I wasn't really sure what to expect nearly 15 years later though, so I started the film with some hefty reservations. Turns out there was no need to worry.
Running Scared can be grouped with features like Domino, Shoot 'em Up and Smokin' Aces. Bold, macho and high octane action films that are all style over substance and care more about how the story is told, rather than what is told. It's a clear choice that is sure to divide a room, but what these films all have in common is that their directors were fully committed to the path they chose. If all this showy and in your face attention hogging isn't your thing, it's probably best to just skip this film altogether.
Don't expect a full-blown action spectacle though, Running Scared throws plenty of crime and mystery elements into the mix. That adds a little extra tension and makes the plot a bit more engaging, but if you're a stubborn plot whore I'm sure it still won't be sufficient. And while that means there's less gun cocking, rubber burning and punch throwing compared to your average action flick, the cinematographer doesn't seem to give a damn and shoots every single scene as if filming something immensely high-energy. The effect is a bit odd at times, but I liked it a lot.
The story revolves around a shady deal gone wrong. Joey is entrusted with a gun that killed some crooked cops and is ordered to get rid of it, but when the neighbor's kid finds the gun and kills his abusive dad with it, the shit hits the fan. Joey storms out and goes on a wild goose chase to find the kid, but he's not the only one who is after the boy. The mafia (both Russian and Italian) and the cops are also on the kid's tail and to make matters worse, the gun keeps changing owners. It's a solid setup and there are a few creative twists, but it's nothing exceptional.
The cinematography is where Running Scared shines brightest. Some very cool camera tricks, a very agile camera and lots of post-production finish make this an attractive-looking film. That is, if you can stand this kind of visual bravura. People who just want to follow the plot will no doubt be distracted by the nervous camera work and abundance of visual stimuli, others will see it as the perfect extension of the mental state of our protagonist. Kramer also doesn't slow things down after the halfway point and keeps the visual intensity high, which is very much appreciated. It's not quite as intense as some other films (i.e. Tony Scott's), but it's well above the norm.
The soundtrack is not so interesting though. It's mostly generic-sounding music, used to drive up the tension while making sure there's some background noise present at all times. Apart from that the impact is rather minimal. It's somewhat of a missed opportunity, as I firmly believe every film benefits from a good selection of tracks, on the other hand a film like this rarely leans on its soundtrack and it's not like the music is irritating. At least the sound effects are more than decent, providing plenty of oomph when needed.
Performances are fine, with Paul Walker doing a pretty solid job as the lead. That said, a young Cameron Bright outshines him playing the kid next door, which is probably a good indication of the overall level of acting you can expect here. No stand-out performances or career-making roles, just solid acting across the board. Secondary roles are also on point, with Vera Farmiga and Chazz Palminteri as most notable examples, but again nothing too spectacular.
After a short introduction that puts all the pawns in the right places, the rest of the film is basically one big chase scene with Joey and a handful of other interested parties trying their best to get to the gun. The film throws a series of tricky obstacles their way, which provide ample distraction before the finale kicks off. I feel that Kramer could've scrapped a thing or two to make the film just a little shorter, but ultimately it never gets dull and the film kept me entertained from start to finish, so that's a job well done there.
Running Scared is a film that will appeal to people with a soft spot for action cinema and a high tolerance to visual trickery. It's not the most unique or most outstanding film, but what it does, it does exceptionally well. It's a high-energy, tense and brash action/crime flick that has a few neat surprises up its sleeve, but is mostly geared at offering the best genre experience possible. Can't really vouch for Kramer's other films, but this one is worth checking out if you're in for some flashy action/crime cinema.