Director Wayne Kramer made his feature film debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 with the film The Cooler. The story of a casino employed bad luck magnet whose luck starts to change when he falls in love much to the chagrin of his ruthless employer. The film went on to be nominated for Golden Globes and Academy Awards for Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin in their respective supporting roles, and the film was widely acclaimed and heralded the arrival of a major new talent.
Around the same time, Paul Walker was enjoying some success as a viable studio lead. Coming to prominence in the original The Fast and the Furious (2001) which was back then a simple Point Break riff, Walker took the main stage in the 2003 sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, and was cast as the lead in the ill-fated Joy Ride (2001) and Timeline (2003). Despite his leading man looks, Walker wasn’t really ever acclaimed as an actor. Critics were often less than kind about his performances in roles where he was rarely asked to emote and simply worked as a pretty line delivery system in the shallowest of popcorn munchers.
Wayne Kramer and Paul Walker would come together in 2005. It was not in a successful film at the box office by any definition, and yet you could make an argument for it being the best work that either artist ever completed. For Kramer, it was a strange left-field choice following The Cooler, but for Walker, it was a real eye-opener that this guy was capable of great performances when given the material, and it makes it all the more tragic that we lost him in 2013 before we got more examples of what he was capable of.
Running Scared takes place in a run-down suburban hell just outside of a major city. Joey (Walker) is a low-level mob enforcer who is constantly put upon by the vicious bosses son. When a deal goes sour and ends in a gunfight, it turns out that the crew have killed a couple of crooked cops and Joey is tasked with disposing of the guns used in the murder. He heads back to his home that he shares with his feisty wife, young son and ailing father. The weapons stashed away are then discovered by Oleg, the abused kid next door, and one is used to shoot his Russian meth cook father before another beating. Oleg flees into a world of darkness, and a frantic Joey sets out to recover the stolen weapon before its connected back to the dead cops and his life is placed in jeopardy.
On the surface of it, Running Scared is similar in plot to any number of movies filling up the crime genre. Where it sets itself apart is in its blending of fairytale tropes into the narrative and visuals to create something unique. The suburban environment we see is constantly cloaked in darkness. More often than not, buildings are bathed in light and are the only things visible as only pitch-black shadows exist in the surroundings. As Joey gets more and more stressed in his search for Oleg, Oleg encounters strange characters and villains in this vision of the suburbs as some kind of a surreal hellscape. A crack head wanting to buy the gun is portrayed as some kind of wraith, a violent pimp is almost a big bad wolf type character, and a couple of yuppie child killers are presented as a riff on the gingerbread house dwelling witch. Oleg narrowly escapes each time as Joey encounters more earthly threats on his quest. The two journeys create a strange dichotomy in how each character perceives the world, and it begins to become clear that the story is less about Joey’s self-preservation, and more a battle for Oleg’s soul in an unforgiving world.
Although it is never made explicitly clear, Running Scared seems to take place in a New Jersey suburb but was actually filmed in the Czech Republic. This adds to the otherworldly, grimy atmosphere of claustrophobic doom that Kramer conjures up. Even without the stylistic flourishes, you would still have a compelling narrative and a lot of this is thanks to the strong character work. Every character you find in this world exhibits a kind of bruised humanity with nobility hiding just below the surface. Oleg himself knows he has been born into a bad place, and yet he still takes the time to save a hooker from her pimp. The hooker then takes it upon herself to get Oleg the medication he desperately needs. Joey’s wife is played by Vera Farmiga who was a few years out from wide acclaim thanks to Up in the Air (2009) but here she plays a character who knows her husband is a low life but still manages to show a strong sense of right and wrong and is unable to let things slide when she is presented with true evil in a pivotal scene before the final act.
Paul Walker himself is an absolute revelation here. Gone is the Keanu clone delivery and clean-cut image, replaced by a short-haired, wiry and wired individual who lives in a state of constant tension. When things go south, Walker absolutely nails a character on the edge living in a state of constant panic, forever chewing gum nervously and on the verge of violence to protect what he loves. The performances and strong character work, make a lot of Running Scared identifiable and relatable, placing you right there in the two-hour ride and feeling as on edge as those on screen.
Towards the latter half of the ’00s, there was a sub-genre of action movie mashups that often went gonzo. The Crank (2006 and 2009) movies are a good example of this as well as Shoot Em’ Up (2007). Running Scared fits right into this trend, it has the extreme violence of these films as well as a stubborn refusal to be pigeon-holed into any kind of mould. Despite its unique nature, worldwide notoriety was not in the film’s destiny.
Nowadays there is no specific week or month that guarantees blockbuster success, its 24-7 blockbuster release dates for studios. Back in 2006, the first two weeks of January and early September was seen as the time to dump the lesser product that would then quietly fade away. Running Scared was released with no fanfare at all in the UK in the first week of January 2006. There was no real advertising unless you were up really late, and the film just appeared in cinemas. It then disappeared just as quickly before coming out in the states a couple of months later and also disappearing. People wouldn’t catch up with it until it was out on DVD that summer, and despite being well received, it ended up with a poor worldwide box office take of just 9 million dollars.
It’s possible the film was just too strange to ever go mainstream, either in its presentation or its hard-hitting violence. Considering Kramer’s previous acclaim for his debut, the fact that no studio really got behind this is puzzling. It is aside from all the pretension, a thriller that actually thrills, feeling like a panic attack captured on celluloid. Kramer would go on to direct the failed prestige movie Crossing Over (2009) and then go grimy once more with Hustlers (aka Pawn Shop Chronicles 2013) which garnered even less attention. As of now, Kramer has not directed a feature for seven years. Hopefully, it will not be long before he makes a come back as Running Scared remains a unique take on the urban thriller that deserves more love.