The headline star, the name before the credits, the star whose name can make a film. Ever since the introduction of the studio system, Hollywood, complemented by the glitz and glamour of the Academy Awards (itself originally a promotion to entice punters back to the cinema during the depression of the thirties), have promoted its big name stars as something special. As the screens increased in size, so too did the apparent size of the actors, their names becoming synonymous with glamour, their names enough to sell a film. At least that's how it used to be, people are somewhat more cynical nowadays, in an age where an actor is only as good as his (or her) last film, the cinema going public demand more than just a name. Doesn't stop the studios from paying unfeasibly large fees to secure that 'big name', though. However, there is no doubt a 'name' does add credence to a film, but, and here is the rub, a 'name' can also brig with it a stigma. Take for example Paul Walker, a thirty something blond actor whose credits include such rubbish as The Fast and the Furious (2003), its even worse sequel and the dire Timeline (2003), an actor that has three times been considered for nomination as worst actor at the Razzie Awards. Why, then, would anyone cast this potential box office poison? As for me, I'd never actually seen his work, the type films he frequents are exactly the sort of thing that I avoid like the plague, so when the chance came to review Running Scared (2006) and stars Paul Walker, I wasn't saddled with the stigma that most people associate with him. So it was with an open (naive?) mind that I slid the disc into my player, ladies and gentlemen tonight's feature is Wayne Kramer's Running Scared.
Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) is a small time soldier in the New Jersey Mafia; when a drugs buy goes badly wrong and in the ensuing shootout two corrupt policemen are shot, Joey is charged with disposing of the guns. Returning home to his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and family Joey elects keep the guns as 'insurance' should anything go wrong. He stashes them in his basement, but unbeknown to him, he is over looked by his son, Nicky (Alex Neuberger) and his best friend Oleg Yugorsky (Cameron Bright). Oleg later steals one of the guns and attempts to shoot his abusive step father Anzor "Duke" Yugorsky (Karel Roden) who happens to be an ex-Russian mobster. When Joey realises that Oleg used the same gun as used to kill the police he goes on a fervent hunt to track down the weapon, otherwise there would be serious repercussions. Having to dodge both the police and the mob Joey's task seems insurmountable as with each break comes another twist as he frantically tries to save himself, his family and Oleg.
There is an awful lot packed into the eighteen hour time frame of the movie. It has an almost Plup Fiction (1994) feel with its interconnected storylines and events, but unlike that excellence, the further into the run time we go the more absurd the events taking place feel. In fact there are entire sequences that have nothing to do with the actual narrative at all, no matter how good or chilling they are. For example, at one point, Oleg, to escape his step father, (and let's not consider the fact that he has been release by the hospital and the police mere hours after being shot) gets into the back of a van. In the van are two other children and when the door opens again a grinning couple, complete with ice cream, offer to take Oleg. Immediately we, the audience, know where this is going. Once at their house, the only brightly coloured scene of the film, the children are shown to the toy room complete with cameras and a floor covered in plastic. The scene culminates with Teresa, in coming to rescue Oleg, becoming the very thing she hates in Joey as she demonstrates a hard/righteous streak on discovering the cupboard full of DVD's with kid's names graded with gold stars. There is no doubt that this is by far the most chilling scene of the film, it is creepy and indiscriminately evil, and out ways any of the bloodletting in the shootouts. However, it has nothing to do with the narrative of the film and is just one absurd turn that the film takes in order to get from one scene to the next.
Having said that, Kramer keeps up a rocket pace, it only slows to add some (unnecessary?) background to the occasional characters (Oleg's mother for example). It is this frantic pace added to Joey's frantic nature and journey that help to smooth over some of these obvious contrivances. Kramer obviously has a good eye, he steeps the film in blues and browns, according to him, to bring out the 'bruised nature of the characters'. It is reasonably effective, it does give a gritty feel to the film, but I'm not sure I really like it. He chooses some nifty camera movements too and stylistic choices in part inspired by Scott's Man on Fire (2004) that clearly stand out, even if he hadn't mentioned them in his commentary. I also liked they way he rewinds the action to show us, from a different angle, the happenings of some key events. It all makes for an interesting watch. His intention was to produce a gritty crime drama reminiscent of the sixties and seventies style, a homage to maverick directors such as Peckinpah and DePalmer (credited with thanks) in that respect he has succeeded. It is gritty, it is hard with gallons of blood and enough profanity to make a sailor blush; I don't think I've heard so much swearing since Quadrophinia (1979) and certainly never as much in an American film; imagine taking all five season of The Sopranos and condensing all the dialogue into two hours - that's how much profanity there is. Strangely enough, though, it never seems out of place.
So what of the acting? Well the Russian mobsters (Karel Roden, John Noble) and the New Jersey mobsters (Johnny Messner, Michael Cudlitz), corrupt police (Chazz Palminteri) and pimp (David Warshofsky) are all so stereotypical in their roles that there is very little for the actors to do. The unconventionally beautiful Vera Farmiga displays a good range from caring, concerned mother turned executioner and the two boys Cameron Bright and Alex Neuberger are both convincing in their parts, Bright especially so. So that leaves us with Paul Walker, upon which the film rests. He plays Joey as a jittery hamster, constantly on edge, and actually, I bought it. Perhaps because I hadn't seen him before, I felt he portrayed enough angst and fear to be believable; even in his more tender moments there was an air of charm leading you to feel for this character. Something that was necessary because the ultimate revelation, which I did not see coming, relies on empathy for him. But unfortunately, no matter how he performs his name might be enough to put people off seeing this film, and that is a shame because it's not that bad.
Finally a word about the endings. Yes I said endings because this film has more than Lord of the Rings. Kramer may have had Hitchcockian ideals by having the main character on the run from the authorities and the villains at the same time, but he was unable to carry that through and end the film sourly. After the credits, though, I rather enjoyed Running Scared, even with its rubbish contrivances and idiotic happenings. There is something primal about it, something visceral, it managed to entertain me at least. I realise it may not be to all tastes, but if you like gritty urban thrillers and can get over the Paul Walker stigma you might just find something you enjoy.
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