Strong characters carry ‘Running Scared’ despite lack of plot

“Running Scared,” a new crime thriller, is a disorienting movie. The film’s plot is completely ludicrous, and the dialogue is so heavy with profanity it sounds silly. The presentation is in-your-face to the point of pretentiousness. However, it all came together into a fascinating movie, and I found myself enjoying every minute of it.

“Running Scared” has two protagonists. The first is a low-level mobster named Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker). The second is the 10-year-old neighbor kid, Oleg Yugorsky (Cameron Bright). The plot is set off when Gazelle’s boss, Tommy “Tombs” Perello (Johnny Messner), uses his distinctive .38 to kill a dirty cop. Gazelle is tasked with getting rid of the hot weapon, but before he can do so, Oleg finds the gun and uses it to shoot his abusive father. Young Oleg flees with the gun from the scene of the crime and Gazelle immediately begins tracking him.

At this point, “Running Scared” becomes two different films whose stories parallel one another, and stays this way for most of the movie. Each protagonist has his own journey and character arc, and the two come together in the third act for a bizarre black light confrontation in a hockey rink.

Gazelle’s journey is the stuff of crime drama: shakedowns, fisticuffs, cop dodging, mobster dodging, etc. Oleg’s journey is a fairy-tale adventure through a dark forest full of monsters. In this instance, the forest is the urban sprawl and the monsters are junkies, pimps and crooked cops. This fairy-tale feel is enhanced by small tweaks in the presentation of Oleg’s journey. Bizarre camera angels, off-kilter character portrayals and unsettling use of color and shadow add up to a surreal and mysterious feel. The result is that the film is able to shift between the minds of the two protagonists with nearly the same ease as a novel.

The plot of this film is utter madness. Gazelle’s crime drama is overblown, relies too heavily on coincidence and contains a twist in the final act that comes out of nowhere and verges on nonsensical. Oleg’s nightmare odyssey is downright ludicrous. He displays an uncanny knack for wandering into dangerous situations, and manages to do so in every scene. The absurdity of the plot quickly becomes a footnote as the movie unfolds, however, due mostly to the surprising strength of the characters.

With Gazelle, Walker proves he is capable of carrying a movie with a dynamic star-caliber performance. Walker has always seemed a capable actor but unerringly finds his way into movies so mediocre that his performance is rendered irrelevant. Gazelle finally affords him a character he can sink his teeth into. Gazelle is willing to do whatever he must to get the gun back but along the way suffers panic, extreme terror, moments of blinding rage _” and underneath everything is a simmering guilt for the situation he pulled his family into.

Cameron Bright doesn’t have any shining moments as the taciturn Oleg, but he plays the character with a quiet confidence and reacts believably to the horrific things he confronts. Honorable mention goes to Vera Farmiga, who plays Gazelle’s wife, Teresa. Teresa is hard-edged with a compassionate core, angry and loving at the same time. At one point, when Oleg’s journey reaches an extremity of absurdity, Farmiga regrounds the story in reality with Teresa’s beautifully played responses to everything.

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The characters in this movie are so strong and well-defined, both through writing and performance, that they carry the movie on their own without the aid of the plot. Even the minor characters that only have a few scenes are vibrant and believable. The movie’s unflinching depiction of violence tells the audience early on that no punches will be pulled, and the driving question behind the film becomes one of who will survive and what will be left of them.

Ultimately, the film is about the larger-than-life themes that normally reside in battle epics and mythology. These themes are couched in a disgusting world of crime drama, making them fresh. This film is not for everyone and could fairly be accused of being over the top and needlessly shocking. Nevertheless, the film is skillfully executed in all departments and manages to dive deep into the human condition.