In the sort of action movie where everybody is shooting and screaming all the time, it often gets difficult to tell the heroes from the villains. “Running Scared” thoughtfully makes it easy for us: The bad guys love to maim, torture, and kill kids. Can’t get enough of it, really.
Fortunately, they never get their wish because the good guys are always right there to maim, torture and kill the bad guys—and anybody else who happens to be in the way—in graphic and brutal fashion.
Extreme violence and moral simplicity is, of course, a hallmark of the action and crime genres. Nobody goes to see a movie like this expecting a deep dissection of the implications of violence on society, or even necessarily a shred of realism. It is, however, a reasonable expectation that if it’s not going to provide either of those things, it will at least be escapist fun.
What “Running Scared” provides instead is a nonsensical plot, dialogue that consists mostly of variations on Paul Walker screaming “Give me my fucking gun,” nonstop shootings, beatings, and knifings; and a directorial style, courtesy of Wayne Kramer, that refuses to use one shot or effect if it can use five. It has all the sleaze and brutality of “Sin City” or a Guy Ritchie movie with none of the artistry, humor, or cleverness.
The plot, such as it is, tells the story of Joey (Paul Walker), a gangster whose job it is to dispose of incriminating guns, apparently by putting them in his basement. Not surprisingly, his son’s friend Oleg (Cameron Bright) gets his hands on one. He shoots his abusive stepfather and goes on the run, and Joey tries to get his gun back through several ridiculous subplots (including the strip-club meeting scene which, by law, every crime movie must contain). Every “twist” is painfully obvious minutes in advance, except the ones that still don’t make sense after you’ve left the theater.
One of the digressions in the story deserves special mention. Oleg gets kidnapped by a frighteningly cheerful couple with a beautiful apartment who enjoy kidnapping, torturing, and killing children, filming the whole thing. It makes for some nicely creepy “things are not as they seem” moments, but ultimately the only purpose of this lengthy sidetrack—which has nothing whatsoever to do with the other main characters or storyline—is to get the audience to cheer when Joey’s wife shoots them.
This subplot is just the most egregious example of the hypocritical morality that pervades the movie. “Running Scared” is not content to be just a heavy dose of stomach-turning and improbable (apparently people can rent ice arenas for shoot-outs, who knew?) violence. No, to establish a bona fide hero, it flings young Oleg in harm’s way with abandon to allow Joey to prove what a good guy he is by repeatedly protecting him. The result is that the audience is periodically reminded how horrible all of this carnage really is, and then asked to enjoy it the next minute as Joey breaks someone’s finger or sets someone on fire.
Bottom Line: If you’re in the mood for slick action and lots of violence, there’s bound to be something nice and generic at the multiplex that doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth.