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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Running Scared

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at Wayne Kramer’s RUNNING SCARED!

THE STORY:

A low-ranking thug is entrusted by his boss to dispose of a gun used in a shoot out, but things go haywire when that gun ends up in the wrong hands.

THE PLAYERS:

Written and directed by Wayne Kramer (THE COOLER, PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES), RUNNING SCARED stars Paul Walker, Vera Farmiga, Cameron Bright, Chazz Palminteri, Karel Roden, Johnny Messner, Ivana Milicevic, Bruce Altman, Elizabeth Mitchell, Arthur J. Nascarella, David Warshofsky, and John Noble.

THE HISTORY:

Following on the heels of his indie hit THE COOLER, Kramer sought to make a film that was akin to a “visceral, Grimm’s fairytale nightmare” action film and hammered out the script for RUNNING SCARED. Originally, he sought Thomas Jane for the lead role, but after he became unavailable, Kramer met with Paul Walker who won him over. Walker’s “pretty boy” image was a consideration, but Kramer saw something more in the actor.

“…When I initially met with Paul, right away I saw that this guy was tough, I saw a Paul Walker that I don’t see in the other movies, that there was a coldness behind the eyes. He pins you down.” – Wayne Kramer, 2006

The Jersey-set film was shot in Prague and the Czech Republic in 2005 and ended up being a tremendous and rewarding challenge for Walker, who put his all into the role of Joey, so much so that it affected him on a much deeper level than he anticipated.

“It was tough. Imagine going to work every day, running around with a gun screaming your frigging lungs out. I was so drained every day, and it was impossible to leave it at the workplace. I'm not a Method-type actor at all, but a girlfriend of mine came out to visit, and after three days she pulled me aside and said she had to to leave. I asked her why, and she said, "Because you scare me. You're in a dark place." – Paul Walker, January 2006

The film opened on February 24, 2006 to middle-of-the-road to negative reviews, currently sitting at 40% on Rotten Tomatoes (which states in its consensus, incorrectly and laughably, that it lacks in stylish flair) and pulled in a total theatrical cume of $9.3 million from a $15 million budget.

Since its release the film has become a cult hit with many fans holding it as Walker’s best performance and recognizing Kramer as a major talent.

WHY IT’S GREAT:

RUNNING SCARED has been on my list for this column since I first decided to start writing it. I don’t know when I would’ve gotten to it, but the tragic loss of Walker made me immediately want to re-watch and absorb the film. I don’t write this to somehow “capitalize” on Walker’s untimely death, but as both a tribute to the actor at his finest and to highlight what I consider to be a remarkable action yarn that has gone unrecognized and underappreciated until recently. It’s to note that although Walker is intensely awesome in this, the movie’s success doesn’t rest squarely on him. This is a group effort from all involved.

RUNNING SCARED is the best Tony Scott film that he never made. Indeed, it has many shades of the action auteur’s style, particularly that of 2004’s MAN ON FIRE, but where Scott’s story played it straight inside a heavily stylized vision, Kramer takes the story into a metaphoric fairy tale road trip and it works beautifully. Joey (Walker), a low-level thug for an east coast mob, is given a nickel-plated snub-nosed pistol to “dispose of” after the murder of some cops, but after the gun is stolen and used in another crime he is put on a path of insanity to track it down before it’s traced back to the original crime.

The story kicks off with a violent thrust within the first few minutes after we witness the aforementioned shoot out, a hyper-kinetic and wonderfully stylized bloodbath that sets the stage for everything to follow. Walker is at ease with the physical aspect right off the bat, as expected. He is established as a family man, married to the strong and sexy Teresa (Vera Farmiga), who he shows his deep affection for with some cunnilingus on the washing machine and later surprises his son with hockey tickets. A dream guy, right? Well, except for that gangster thug aspect.

"It was important to show Paul and Vera's characters being very much in love because later in the film Vera had to have a lot of faith in him during the course of the night. She had to believe that he wasn't going to do the worst thing she could imagine him doing - killing the kid who stole the gun when he got hold of him. She told him "You're not evil because I know what real evil is. I've just seen it." I wanted to contrast all kinds of messed up characters against each other - there's bad, there's worse, and there's the really fucked-up in this world. Playing that against a Grimm's fairytale template was fun to do in the execution of the production design. I wanted to feel like everything had real stakes. There's no brakes to Joey - he's in a tail spin fearing for his own and his family's life as the shit continually hits the fan." – Wayne Kramer, 2013

Joey’s son, Nicky, hangs out with his neighbor, Oleg (Cameron Bright), who has got some serious home life problems with an ex-prostitute mother and an abusive criminal father figure, Anzor. After seeing Joey hide the nickel-plated snub nose pistol in his basement, Oleg steals it and takes matters into his own hands, shooting Anzor and going on the run. This puts Joey on the run to track down the gun and Oleg, where the shit truly hits the fan and the story turns into a Grimm Fairy Tale set over one night in the seedy gangster underworld.

What transpires is scene after scene going in a direction you never expect. You think you have it all nailed down, because looking at the poster or watching the trailer you’ll think you have the whole movie figured out. But, you don’t. And, that’s the beauty of it. It’s one surprising event after another, populated with characters that are part stereotype, part cartoon, and most of them evil as all hell with Walker’s Joey being the protagonist on a journey to save his life and that of his family, but challenged all the same to be righteous in the face of so much infamy.

Walker owns this role, plain and simple. He makes an art out of profanity (“f*ck” is said 328 times) that is almost poetic in its delivery. The intensity that he brings to Joey is like a primal rage, deep and guttural, his icy stare magnified in every scene, be it confronting low-life thugs, innocent civilians, or a violent pimp. It was the first time that I saw the actor as someone to be reckoned with. But, it’s not just his “badass” intensity that sells the performance. It’s the anxiety-ridden fear that he emotes when things go seriously wrong that truly sells it. Begging for his own life or that of a child about to be executed or simply calling to his own son when faced with imminent death, Walker puts YOU in his shoes.  He’s not selling someone invincible; he’s selling someone real in a hyper-realistic setting where the stakes are all or nothing.

"I know that Paul considers that role to be one of his favorites, and he really connected with it. He loves that kind of intense material, and unfortunately it doesn't come his way that often. The thing I remember saying to Paul is "This is a very hysterically pitched performance." Just imagine if it was exhausting for the viewer, what it must have been like for Paul, doing ten takes for each scene! He was a great partner in crime. I'm not even sure if another actor could have gone as far as he did in maintaining the pitch of his performance. Every day we would be conspiring and having a blast while the rest of the crew was just mortified! We were shooting in Prague and they had no idea what we were making. I think they thought we were making a snuff movie or something. Paul and I are pretty close and we're still looking for those kinds of opportunities to do another movie like RUNNING SCARED that is super-intense, and has a ticking-bomb plotline." – Wayne Kramer, March 2013

But, Walker isn’t the only one selling awesome here. The lovely Vera Farmiga pulls out a performance that is high on the intensity scale as well. She starts off strong and sassy, but you know right away that she is not to be f*cked with. When things get absolutely batshit crazy and she’s called to action, Farmiga delivers in spades. Like Walker’s balance of “badass” and “ everyman,” Farmiga is every bit as level, which makes her performance so gratifying. Given one of the most intense sequences (and arguably most people’s favorite of the film), she displays a wide range of emotion that goes from zero to max in the space of seconds when confronting a group of pedophiles who are up to some seriously jacked up shit.

“I was weirded out by it [the script]. I thought it was so bizarre and so wonderfully odd. I had a very extreme emotional response to it, which I love. I couldn’t decide if I hated it or I loved it. I couldn’t. I knew I was definitely disturbed by it. It was gripping. I know that when you read it pretty quickly you know that something’s there. And, to be honest with you, I thought it was so imaginative in a sort of weird fairy tale way. It’s an adult fairy tale, yet told through the perspective of a child and I found that interesting. And I thought it was bold and I thought it was risky. I’m attracted to risky things…and I was interested to see what [director] Wayne [Kramer] would come up with next after The Cooler.” – Vera Farmiga, 2006

Cameron Bright pulls off one of those “young kid” performances that thankfully feels natural and real, unlike the many we endure that simply don’t hit the mark. The villains of the film are seasoned vet villains; Chazz Palminteri, John Noble, Johnny Messner, Karel Roden, etc. are detestably brilliant as their individual “fairy tale” baddies. The most notable is, of course, David Warshofsky as Lester the Pimp, who is essentially the “mad hatter” of the group. He’s a blast to watch in all his over-the-top glory and earns every scene he’s in.

The biggest factor of success with RUNNING SCARED, however, belongs to director Wayne Kramer, who demonstrates a hyper-kinetic style that is both off-the-wall and perfectly balanced at once. The film has a driving intensity that allows for stops to catch your breath before upping the tempo again and it simply works. It’s consistent and consistently kick ass. The violence is bloody, brutal, and often shocking, particularly when Walker’s Joey is having hockey pucks shot at his face at an ice rink. But, again, it fits. It works within the seedy, ugly world Kramer creates, where the bad guys outnumber the good ones and everything is crumbling around their ears and anything can happen.

Kramer and Walker worked again on this year’s PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES (which I still haven’t seen, unfortunately) and Walker’s upcoming release HOURS is buzzing with another great performance from the late actor. Having not seen either of those films yet, I still hold to RUNNING SCARED as my favorite of Walker’s films and that’s not a sympathetic nod. It changed my opinion of Walker many years ago and has held strong ever since.

The simple fact is: Walker rocks the shit out of the role and I think it’s a great film to have in his legacy. He may be mostly remembered for his FAST & FURIOUS roles, but for me, RUNNING SCARED is what defined him as an actor. For Kramer, it makes me hunger to see more of his work and wish that there were more hard-edged films like this being made. They’re few and far between and with a PG-13 dominated market, not likely to make a sweeping comeback anytime soon. And, maybe that’s what makes RUNNING SCARED so special. It’s a one of a kind, just as Walker was, and sometimes that’s more than enough.

“I extremely enjoyed playing this character. Joey has a lot of heart and soul. He’s old school and extremely protective of his family. I mean, he goes around killing and shooting a lot of people in the movie, but they’re slime balls anyway so it doesn’t make a difference. I loved it! You live out your true fantasy of shooting and killing all the bad guys without being worried about getting arrested or being hauled in prison. It was a dream come true! – Paul Walker

BEST SCENE:

This is a tough call. There are two scenes that stand out and kind of “make” the film. The first scene is the hockey rink finale and the second is the scene where Farmiga confronts the pedophiles. Both scenes are intense as hell in their own respective ways. For the sake of not spoiling the payoff of Farmiga’s scene, I’m going to share the hockey rink sequence, although if you’ve never seen the film I’d advise skipping as it has some obvious spoilers due to the fact that it’s the finale. For those that have seen the film this will likely get your juices flowing to check the flick out again.

SEE IT:

RUNNING SCARED is available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as digital downloads at both Amazon and iTunes. Get it here!

PARTING SHOT:

“Both times I directed Paul he brought an absolute commitment to his craft and would be very hard on himself if he didn’t think he was getting there. He was a natural athlete and could deliver a precision action performance take after take, hitting very difficult camera marks in sync with extremely complicated camera moves. During Running Scared, he spent seven days shooting a grueling action scene on a real ice rink and on at least five of those days he had his face pushed down into the ice, to the point that his flesh was literally stuck to the surface of the ice…and he never ever complained about it." – Wayne Kramer, December 2013

Read director Wayne Kramer's full tribute to Paul Walker here.

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