With the recent passing of Paul Walker, I thought it would be best to honor his memory by visiting his most accomplished film to date. Running Scared is a cinematic beast that flew under the radar and has since earned a small cult following that will probably breed more fans as time goes by. History won’t remember Paul Walker for his Fast and Furious movies; this is the film people will be talking about for years to come.
Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared is one of the most intense gangster films to come out of Hollywood. It is fearless,graphic, gritty, and relentless in its depiction of evil. Right from the beginning, Kramer locks the viewer into a dark world of abusive fathers, junkies, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, pedophiles, dirty cops, Italian mafia, the Russian mob, and Mexican gangs.
The plot kicks off with a shootout between two mobs and dirty cops. Following the shootout, an Italian crime boss asks his soldier to dispose of a gun used to gun down the corrupt cops. Here we are introduced to Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), the thug with the task. When Gazelle fails to get rid ofthe gun, all hell breaks loose. He ends up running from one shitty neighbourhood to the next in desperate search for that gun.
The gun in that sense is the MacGuffin. Its sole purpose is to drive the story forward into unknown territory. If you’re not familiar with the cinematic term MacGuffin, it was originally coined by Hitchock and refers to an object or a plot device used to move a chain of events forward. Some of cinema’s most iconic “MacGuffins” are the envelope full of money in Psycho, the Rosebud sled in Citizen Kane, the ring in Lord of the Rings, the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Marcellius Wallace’s suitcase inPulp Fiction.
Filmmakers often plant a “MacGuffin” into their screenplays to make it easier to maneuver the story into whichever scenario they want to shoot. You move the “MacGuffin” and the viewer is thrown into an entirely different scene without even noticing. It simply puts a cause to any effect, and Running Scared is perhaps the best example of a “MacGuffin” driven story. The gun falls into the hands of every nasty being in this planet’s shittiest neighbourhood. This elevates the tension to a whole new level of heart-pounding suspense.
Make no mistake; this isn’t a film to be taken seriously. Choosing to watch this film is the equivalent of picking to the ride the meanest roller coaster in the theme park. The viewer has no choice, you won’t be smoothly pulled into a well thought out ride, Running Scared shoves you from one absurd scene to the next with absolutely no warning of what will happen next.In that sense, it is classic example of pure unpredictable entertainment, an exemplar of film as the ultimate pastime.
In all fairness, Kramer does add an artistic touch that differentiates his film from the countless Guy Richie copycats elevating it into cult status. German expressionism clearly influenced the way the film was shot. Most of the scenes are seen through the eyes of children. This allows Kramer to showcase his story like it’s a grim nightmarish fairy tale. Characters with evil intensions move unrealistically, and cast expressionistic shadows revealing the true nature of who they are.
This is evident in the beggar incident and the infamous pedophile couple scene, one of the creepiest scenes of any film you’ll ever see. In fact, if you look closer, you’ll spot a reference to the German fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. The name on the prescription bottle a kid finds in the pedophiles home reads “Hansel”. In the fairy tale, a witch lures Hansel and Gretel into her house using candy in order to eat them, similar to how the pedophiles lure the kids into their home using ice cream and countless toys.
There are other symbolic aspects scattered throughout the film, the most obvious of which is the name of our main character, Gazelle. Get it? Gazelles run around scared when wolves hunt them. In many ways, Running Scared is a lot smarter than it looks. If you look at it from one angle, it’s a crime film with a comic book feel to it, a nightmarish fairy tale from another angle, and a Hollywood satire if you look beneath the surface.
Everything in Running Scared is exaggerated and overblown excessively. The violence is bone crunching, the profanity is delivered in extraordinary detail, and clichésand stereotypes are everywhere to be seen. I honestly think this was done intentionally to mock Hollywood and its alpha male fixation on graphic violence, Hollywood’s depiction of women as sex objects, and an overused offensive verbal formula that ultimately implants stereotypes into culture. In Running Scared, women are almost always referred to as bitches, African Americans get stamped with the N-word, and Italians are portrayed as ruthless gangsters whacking people left and right. Running Scared goes as far as mocking studios forcing unrealistic happy endings on screenplays just to play it safe.
With repeated viewings, Running Scared turns more into a dark comedy than anything else. Each time you watch it, you’ll be caught off guard one way or another. In this last viewing, I noticed that Walker uses about every transitional technique in the editing book. This is a fearless film that will sucker punch you with its staggering visuals and continue throwing its fists at you after you’ve been knocked out.