I distinctly remember the moment I saw the poster for “Running Scared” hanging up in the lobby of my local movie theater back in 2005. My first and initial reaction was “This can’t be? Are they actually making a remake to ‘Running Scared’?”. Of course the “Running Scared” I’m referring to was the 1986 buddy cop comedy starring Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. I looked closer to the poster and saw who the films star was and thought “Ok. If this is a remake. An odd choice to have Paul Walker star. But I’ll go along for the ride”. By that time, I was already a huge fan of the immensely talented Paul Walker (who we tragically lost in 2013). Walker who was already a leading man, was the best thing about the “Fast & Furious” films, but I also enjoyed his string of films he had made up to that point in: “Timeline”, “Into The Blue” and “Joy Ride”. Soon after I saw the first trailer to his 2006 film, that was at the time confusingly titled “Running Scared”. I immediately realized that this was NOT the same movie from 1986.
In-fact it was far from the same movie in every way possible. South African writer and director Wayne Kramer was the grand maestro behind 2006’s, “Running Scared”. An intended throwback to the gritty crime thrillers of the 70’s. Kramer who wasn’t fond of the new wave of PG-13 action movies that were getting popularized in the 2000’s. He fondly grew up with the gritty 70’s crime thrillers like “Straw Dogs”, “The French Connection” and the films of Charles Bronson. That’s when Kramer started to write “Running Scared”. His crime thriller proved to be a unique one as he was not just inspired by the aforementioned films but also used a fairy-tale logic in his contemporary crime film. Molding “Running Scared” into a suburban version of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale (if you look closely there are many Easter eggs referencing to the Grimm’s stories).
During the films junket tour, Kramer commented on using the fairy tale approach in “Running Scared”, saying: “I also think the fairy-tale template has been done to death by now, although I’m sure someone is coming up with an original, contemporary fairy tale take even as I say this. The Grimm’s fairy tales are particularly dark and nightmarish and mirror today’s f’d-up world pretty accurately, so it’s tempting to infuse modern films, especially crime films, with certain Grimm’s themes”.
No studio wanted to touch or distribute “Running Scared”, until a new and upcoming production studio Media 8 came along and wanted to release Kramer’s film. The studio gave him full control over the project (a real rarity among studios), so Kramer went ahead and storyboarded the entire two hour film to show how he wanted to accomplish his vision. This led to New Line Cinema (one of the biggest studios at the time) to release the film with backing from original studio Media 8. New Line also chose to keep Kramer’s original vision and let him remain in full control.
Wayne Kramer had made his feature film debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 with his film “The Cooler”. The film went on to be nominated for two Golden Globes (best supporting actor Alec Baldwin and best supporting actress Maria Bello) and an Academy Award nomination for Alec Baldwin. Initially opening in only 11 theaters, the film was a box office failure but received some notice on home video, was widely acclaimed by film critics and heralded to be the arrival of a major new talent.
“Running Scared” takes place in a run down suburban hell just outside of a major city (with the accents we can easily assume it’s set in New Jersey). Joey (played by Paul 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 gun used in the murder. He heads back to his home that he shares with his wife (Vera Farmiga “The Conjuring”), young son and ailing father. The weapon Joey stashes away in his home is then discovered by Oleg, an abused kid who lives next door and uses it to shoot his Russian meth father. Oleg then flees and Joey pursues him into the dark criminal underworld, desperate to retrieve the weapon before it’s traced back to him. Meanwhile, a corrupt detective (Chazz Palminteri) is following Joey’s trail with his own agenda.
Since the film takes place in New Jersey, Kramer wanted to shoot there but filming in the city proved to be too expensive for the films $17 million budget. Therefore the cast and crew moved the shooting to Prague where the filming costs were much lower. To achieve the look of having the film set in Jersey, also meant the requirement for all of the filmed scenes, to have American appliances which all had to be shipped to Prague. In the end 95% of the movie was filmed in Prague with the remaining 5% filmed in Jersey.
Director Wayne Kramer commented on the films shooting location in Prague: “I didn’t have a choice really. The Prague shooting was dictated by budget and you do what you have to do to make it work. I think it worked in ‘Running Scared’ because much of the film takes place at night and moody locations can obscure a lot of what you don’t want the audience to see. Also, we were fortunate to be able to build a lot of the film’s sets and match them to the real deal in New Jersey for far less than shooting in the U.S. which would have cost us. It never seemed like we had enough time or money during the shoot, but in retrospect and judged by today’s filmmaking climate, we had a pretty decent indie budget and schedule. “Running Scared” couldn’t be made today with the same style and visual ambition, which costs a lot to get on screen, because nobody’s financing hard R-rated films at that price”.
To play the role of low level mob enforcer Joey, Kramer and team wanted actor Thomas Jane of “Deep Blue Sea”, but scheduling conflicts with another project forced Thomas Jane to pass on the film. Around the same time in the films ongoing casting call, actor and oceanographer Paul Walker was enjoying success as a viable studio lead. Known to most audiences thanks to the original “Fast and the Furious” film in 2001 and the 2003 sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious”.
In between 2001 and 2006 (when “Running Scared” was released), Walker enjoyed moderate hits (“Into The Blue”) and films that received an unfair share of no love (“Joy Ride”). After accepting the role in “Running Scared”, Paul Walker was making two movies back to back for two different audiences. One for families in the successful PG rated Disney adventure “Eight Below”, opening only a week prior to the hard R rated “Running Scared”.
With his resume slowly growing, Walker still wasn’t really ever acclaimed as an actor. Critics were often less than kind about his performances, but Walker is an absolute revelation in “Running Scared” and would prove everyone wrong about him just being another handsome face. Walker’s Joey, is a short-haired, wiry and wired individual who lives in a state of constant tension. When things go south, Walker nails it in playing a character on the edge who is living in a state of constant panic, forever chewing gum nervously and on the verge of violence to protect what and who he loves.
“I made this movie for myself,” says Walker during a telephone interview. “These types of movies are guilty pleasures for me. I’m not affected by violence in the same way that some people are. I don’t know why, but I enjoy the intensity. A lot of people are going to hate ‘Running Scared’. There’s lots of violence and the language is terrible. My father isn’t affected by too many things, but he couldn’t stand the language in this one. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it was quite an exercise and I enjoyed the hell of it”.
Wayne Kramer commented on casting Paul Walker: “To be honest, Paul brought the financing for ‘Running Scared’. I was sceptical at first, but after I first met with him, I was won over. He proved to be a gift to me as a filmmaker every single day on set. He always had my back and appreciated my style of filmmaking”. Starring in “Running Scared”, was a real eye-opener to witnessing that this guy was capable of great performances when given the material. It just makes it all the more tragic that we had lost him in 2013 (can’t believe it’s been 8 years), before we got even further examples of what he was capable of.
One of the pleasures of the movie is how Kramer gives the films supporting characters big scenes all to themselves. The standout of the supporting cast is Vera Farmiga who escapes the cliche of being the just the hero’s wife and instead becomes the hero’s “take matters in her own hands” wife and makes the most satisfying kills of the movie.
The performances of Paul Walker, his co-stars (especially Vera Farmiga) and the strong character work brilliantly developed by Wayne Kramer. Are all reasons that make a lot of “Running Scared” identifiable and relatable. Kramer places you right there in the two-hour ride and makes you feel as on edge as his characters on screen.
On the surface, “Running Scared” is similar in plot to any number of movies in the crime genre. But it sets itself apart in its blending of fairytale tropes into the crime story narrative and visuals to create something unique. This only added to the otherworldly, grimy atmosphere of claustrophobic doom that Kramer conjures up. Even without Kramer’s stylistic flourishes, you would still have a compelling narrative.
It’s most likely the films disappointment at the box office came from being just too strange a film to ever go mainstream. People couldn’t handle either its presentation and gritty kinetic vision or its hard-hitting violence. One sequence in particular had taken everyone for a loop and had viewers talking. Roughly an hour and fifteen minutes into the film as Vera Farmiga, who plays Paul Walker’s wife goes on her own search to find Oleg and stumbles upon a couple with a paedophilic aspect to them. It’s a standout sequence that goes to the extreme, that’s so creepy and so pitch perfect, that I don’t know how there wasn’t any pushback from the studio?
Kramer commented about the sequence in an interview: “There was a ton of pushback. Nobody wanted that scene in the film. I think I was the lone defender of it, along with Michael Pierce, my producer. It helped that Paul Walker and Vera Farmiga were supportive. That scene is the reason Vera wanted to do the film. But a couple of the other producers and the financiers all wanted me to revise the script to remove that section and even in post I was receiving pressure to nuke it. I pushed back hard and told them to wait until the first preview. To me, that was always going to be the signature scene of the film and especially because, against expectations, it becomes a showcase for a supporting character. And I love s*** like that”.
Kramer continued on saying: “People who are disturbed by that scene and question why it’s in the film simply aren’t paying attention. It serves as a barometer for Vera’s character to understand true evil and to gut-check herself about who her husband is and what he could be capable of. After the first preview, when the audience were on their feet and applauding at Vera’s handling of the paedophiles, all opposition went away to the scene. It is consistently the most referred to scene in the film. I always felt that if Harvey Weinstein (way before he was busted for his crimes against women) had gotten his hands on ‘Running Scared’, he would have cut that scene out. It makes a huge difference when you have producers who respect the creative process on your films”.
The paedophiles sequence is one of the reasons (other than the violence), that should have earned the film an NC-17 rating. But Wayne Kramer was shocked to have found out that the movie got the R rating on it’s first submission. He states in the DVD commentary that he thought that he would get NC-17, but he luckily didn’t. In return “Running Scared” was not a successful film at the box office by any definition. It grossed a total of $9.4 million worldwide, failing to bring back its modest budget of $15-$17 million. Paul Walker was disheartened by the films low box office opening and after returning home from dinner one night. He came to discover that writer and director Quentin Tarantino had left a message on his machine, praising the film and Walker’s performance. Walker was relieved and happy, that someone like Tarantino had enjoyed the film.
Since it’s release, the film has gained a massive cult following over the years and director Wayne Kramer knew it had a new life after its disappointing theatrical run. Kramer said: “It pretty much started to gain a following as soon as it hit home video and pay TV. I think high-school kids were discovering it and passing it along to their friends. Due to the controversial nature of the subject matter (child endangerment), I felt the film was never going to be well-received by critics and I was right. Critics. Well, most critics (I shouldn’t say all of them) are the most rearview mirror-looking, reactionary group when it comes to violence and extreme cinema. They’ll give a pass to celebrated filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino, but if the film isn’t art-house branded, they’ll have their knives out for it”.
Kramer continues: “Just take a look at the Rotten Tomato score for Tony Scott’s masterpiece, ‘Man on Fire’ (Denzel Washington). It’s rated at 39 percent, even lower than ‘Running Scared’. C’mon… ‘Man on Fire’ is f’ing incredible and stylistically ground-breaking. It’s a top twenty film for me, maybe even top ten. ‘Scarface’ in its initial release was also critically massacred. It received Golden Raspberry nominations. Today the ‘Scarface’ reviews are all revisionist. The film is number 104 on IMDB’s top rated films of all time. I will say that ‘Running Scared’ did receive critical support from diverse and respected critics like Roger Ebert and certainly from the Hollywood creative community. I remember David Geffen called me up to tell me how much he loved the film and to ignore the reviews. He was pissed off at the L.A. Times review, which called it the worst film of the year and it was only February!”
Considering Kramer’s previous acclaim for his debut, the fact that no studio really got behind the film is puzzling. It is a sharply written thriller that actually thrills, ultimately feeling like a panic attack captured on celluloid. It’s clear from the get go that Wayne Kramer, isn’t looking to deliver a run of the mill thriller. He makes an unapologetic in your face thriller that throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Then he says “What the hell?” and throws in the kitchen sink too.
“Running Scared” is a hard hitting, visceral, over the top extravaganza of blood and bullets that doesn’t let up for one second throughout its two hour run time. It’s a vicious and brutal B-movie jacked up to a pulpy, violent action picture that torments the viewer just as much as its characters on their night of blood and violence. Writer and director Wayne Kramer takes the ultraviolent crime thrillers of the 70’s and mixes it with fairy tale tropes to give us an endlessly inventive kid’s story told through the mind of a psychopath.
Imagine if Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher all sat around a table sharing ideas about the legendary Grimm fairy tales, influencing each of their filmmaking styles, they all develop a fever, fall asleep and wake up from a dream. Then they’d get something like “Running Scared”. Of course Kramer meticulously puts together the film and sets everything in motion by using strong characterizations, crisp action and clear dialogue. While it may seem it from the trailers, this isn’t one of those berserk action movies that looks like the script was cut into pieces, thrown into the air, put back together at random and shot haphazardly.
After 15 years it still remains a ferociously energetic piece of filmmaking. It was one of the best overlooked films of the 2006 year that you could easily make an argument in being the best work that either Paul Walker or writer and director Wayne Kramer had ever completed. Although I wonder what a montage of Kramer’s over the top violence would look like backed to Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom”?