I wanted to see Running Scared because I was so fond of The Cooler, writer-director Wayne Kramer's previous film. The Cooler was a character-based suspense film in which both the characterizations and the suspense were handled impressively.
Running Scared did not begin well. It started with one of those teaser scenes that precede the rest of the story told as flashback, which seems to be the trend in crime films these days (probably started by The Usual Suspects). The teaser scene preceded a violent, bloody shootout in which one guy was shot in the crotch. Five minutes into the movie, I was disappointed and thought I'd made a mistake.
Fortunately, the next hour or so redeemed the movie greatly, and I was absorbed by the story and action until the end. Like The Cooler, Running Scared had at least one too many endings; the extra endings in The Cooler fit into its overall theme of luck, but the endings in Running Scared were cliched and manipulative. In particular, the very last scene was entirely unnecessary and somewhat irritating. The storyline revolves around a missing gun and the kid who used it to shoot his abusive stepfather. The kid swiped the gun from his next-door neighbor's basement, but the neighbor, Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), is an organized-crime lackey who is supposed to have destroyed the weapon after it was used to kill a corrupt cop. Joey has to find the kid and the gun before the police or his crime bosses find out what happened.
I found the kids to be the most compelling part of the movie; both the 10-year-old boy who grabs the gun in the first place, Oleg (Cameron Bright), and his friend Nicky (Alex Neuberger), Joey's son. The young actors were quite convincing as ordinary kids who just want to go to the hockey game ... except that Oleg's stepfather beats him when he badmouths John Wayne, and Nicky's dad stashes guns in a secret hole in the basement. In fact, the kids were more interesting to watch than the grownups.
The action throughout Running Scared is involving and fast-paced enough that you don't notice right away the number of cliches being invoked in this film. Every mob-film and crime-film cliche in the genre was dragged out. Chazz Palminteri plays a corrupt cop; gee, who would have expected that? One plot twist reminded me a little too much of The Salton Sea; another series of events reminded me of Bound. Some of the plot devices were the sort mocked in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so if you've seen that movie, you will find it difficult to repress an entirely inappropriate smile during at least one scene in Running Scared.
Among the cliches are a few powerful scenes, such as the one in which Tee, Joey's wife, confronts a creepy, evil couple. The way in which she handles the situation is unexpected and powerful. Vera Farmiga is excellent in the role.
Kramer's affinity for stylish, cool transitions between scenes is evident in this film, but the stylish transitions don't quite fit in with the overall tone of the movie. The film would need to be more noir or, like The Cooler, more Vegas, for the transitions to work best. In Running Scared, they only call attention to their own coolness.
Despite the cliches, inconsistent style, and annoying ending(s), Running Scared is a good solid thriller with enough compelling action to keep you watching. I found the shootout scenes nearly repellant, and I disliked the teaser scene in the beginning because I think it detracted from a certain amount of suspense. Overall, however, I wasn't sorry I gave this film a chance ... but we own the DVD of The Cooler, and I doubt we'll buy this one when it's available.