Wayne Kramer’s gritty actioner is sure to appeal to fans of unflinching and frenetic cinema.
Welcome to The Overlook Motel, a place where under-seen and unappreciated films are given their moment in the spotlight. I hope you enjoy your stay here and find the accommodations to be suitable. Now, please take a seat and make yourself comfortable, I have some misbehaving guests to ‘correct’.
This week’s selection plays out a bit like an audience endurance test. Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared puts the viewer through the wringer from the jump and only continues to ratchet up the tension to the point of being palpable, never relenting for even a moment. That combined with the picture’s decidedly gritty aesthetic and unflinching portrayal of the seedy dealings of the criminal underbelly of New Jersey make the film quite the intense viewing experience.
While not a proper horror picture, Running Scared absolutely has an exploitation-esque sensibility, coupled with copious amounts of onscreen bloodshed. That along with the fact that this effort was something of a box office bomb that has continued to fly under the radar since release makes it a logical choice for inclusion here.
Running Scared sees mob henchman Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) tasked with disposing of a gun used in the murder of a dirty cop. The objective seems simple enough. But when the firearm goes missing from Joey’s home, he sets out on a frantic quest to retrieve the weapon. Joey searches high and low but each lead regarding the (ever-changing) location of the piece comes with a new set of complications, culminating in a finale that may temper your taste for hockey indefinitely.
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What makes the film particularly intense is the presence of more than one antagonist. Joey must lock horns with numerous secondary and tertiary adversaries along his quest, each of which adds a layer of complexity to his primary objective. With each passing minute, the flick grows more extreme, subjecting the viewer to gritty visuals, dark thematic elements, and graphic violence along the way.
The film’s frenetic pace sees the tension established from the get-go via a flash-forward sequence. There isn’t really a build, more so than an escalation from zero to sixty that begins at the onset. The frantic pace never slows, only growing more harrowing with each new turn of events.
The proceedings are further amplified by chaotic editing that makes the events of the film feel as if they are unfolding at warp speed. Additionally, the cinematography and color palette both possess a grimy quality likely to keep the audience feeling uneasy.
Director Wayne Kramer has gone to great lengths to make Running Scared an unsettling viewing experience. But that was a very deliberate move. When every aspect of the film is designed to put the viewer ill at ease and the narrative moves at a breakneck pace, with visuals that feel like they belong in a video game or music video, it’s nearly impossible not to be sucked into the action.
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Moreover, Paul Walker turns in an impressive performance that shows greater range than a lot of the late actor’s work allowed. In his portrayal of Joey, we witness Walker breaking out of the box a lot of his filmography placed him in and demonstrating a surprising level of emotional depth. Though the flick wasn’t a major commercial success, it’s by far my favorite performance of Walker’s career.
Running Scared isn’t available to stream for free as of the publication of this post. It is, however, accessible as a digital rental and on physical media. Please bear in mind that the film contains off-color dialogue, penile violence, dark and disturbing depictions of child abuse (including a predatory couple that commits unspeakable acts against minors), and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. But for those that enjoy ultra-violent exploitation-esque fare, there is plenty to appreciate about this blood-soaked thrill ride.
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