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A-Ron’s Film Rewind: “Running Scared” (1986) – The 35th Anniversary

In 1987, “Lethal Weapon” became a prime example of what the perfect buddy-cop formula could be. Many films came before it and many came after it, but “Lethal Weapon” would be the one to define the eighties. A year before the release of “Lethal Weapon” Billy Crystal and the late Gregory Hines gave the buddy-cop genre a shot themselves in the rough, gritty and funny “Running Scared”. Released by MGM at the time when the studio’s fortunes were at a standstill, they hoped “Running Scared” would lead them to a new franchise.

The studio that was home to “007: James Bond” had hired director Peter Hyams, who was coming off the studio’s big budget “2010: The Day We Made Contact” to direct. Peter Hyams had a few credits to his name prior to “Running Scared”, having directed “Capricorn One”, “Hanover Street” and “Outland”. But his later work from 1992 and on were impressive with “Stay Tuned”, “Time Cop”, “Sudden Death”, “The Relic” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “End Of Days”. 

Hyams took on “Running Scared” after “2010”, because he wanted to remain more earthbound. Hyams wanted to do a comedy that was not stupid and a film that had action in it, but where the action was not mean spirited, bloody or graphic. MGM’s original script was about two elderly cops in New York who wanted to retire. Attached to star were Gene Hackman and Paul Newman before director Peter Hyams decided to make the Hughes and Costanzo characters younger.

Around the time Hackman and Newman were attached, Tom Selleck and John Travolta were also offered the roles. Selleck turned it down due to commitments to “Magnum, P.I.”, while Travolta’s agent at the time felt that the project was wrong for him. With the intention of making “Running Scared” about two retired cops, Hyams wanted to make it about two young cops in Chicago who thought about leaving the cop life behind and living it up in Key West. Hyams felt this could open up a set of casting possibilities that were fresh and would give a visual use to a city that is not used as much in movies. 

“There were a lot of cop movies around at that time, so I decided that if I wanted to be interesting I needed to do it with two actors you would not normally expect to see in an action movie”, said Hyams in an interview with Empire magazine. “So I wanted Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, and I got them and they were wonderful together. They just clicked”. 

Peter Hyams has stated that when he told the studio that he wanted Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines it was complete silence. Since at the time both actors were not house hold names as they would became later on in their careers. In fact “Running Scared” was Billy Crystal’s first lead role, while Gregory Hines had Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” and dance thriller “White Nights” already under his film credits. Hines and director Peter Hyams had worked together previously, a year before on an episode of the Steven Spielberg produced 80’s series “Amazing Stories”. 

“Running Scared” was filmed from September 1985 to January 1986, with six weeks of filming in MGM’s Studios plus location work in Key West and Chicago. Gregory Hines said in a interview after the films release that “Peter Hyams was tough to work with. But I don’t want to put the guy down”. While Crystal said “I contributed what I hope are little pearls throughout the piece. Peter Hyams wanted me in the part because he felt I was the kind of writer and performer who could help the script at certain moments because I improvise a lot. So I got very involved. I would improvise during rehearsal and then sometimes I did it during a take, which gets even more dangerous. And you can’t do those kinds of things unless you have an actor like Gregory Hines who is there to catch you. To hold you at that particular moment”. 

One of the most well known action scenes in “Running Scared” was it’s car chase along the Chicago “L” track. The filming of the chase scene took place over six consecutive Sundays. While shooting the sequence, a crash occurred when the limousine that was being chased came to a rest after jumping the track. The taxicab that Crystal and Hines were in had stopped, but the camera truck was unable to do so in time causing to destroy the equipment and resulting in the day’s shot film to spill onto the pavement below. Director Peter Hyams stated that during shooting several suspensions and axles broke and two or three limousines and taxicabs were needed to complete the sequence.

What makes the scene all the better is how the tension is broken by Crystal’s banter as Hines takes the wheel of their bulletproof taxi. I love Crystal’s line about how Hines always gets to drive in car chases while the most exciting thing he’s allowed to do is parallel park. In another sequence that Hyams dubbed, “High Noon in a glass house” the actors hung precariously from high places in the final shootout, with Hines making memorable use of a window washer’s rig to wreak havoc on the bad guys. Staged inside one of Chicago’s architectural spectacles, the glass-enclosed Illinois State Building. Special rigs and camera mounts were also strategically placed throughout the Illinois State Building interior and exterior. The crew had nine evenings within a twelve hour window to film and replace any mangled poinsettias and broken glass.

MGM hired Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” producer Rod Temperton to put together the soundtrack. The biggest track of the film was “Sweet Freedom” by Doobie Brothers singer and keyboardist Michael McDonald. “Sweet Freedom” hit number seven on the Billboard Top 100. The soundtrack features an extended six minute version of the song.

A music video was released for Michael McDonald’s hit single ‘Sweet Freedom’. In the video, Crystal and Hines are in their squad car looking at a postcard from McDonald in Florida which says ‘Wish You Were Here’ (implying that was the inspiration for them choosing that as their holiday destination). We then see a montage of action scenes from the film over the song’s intro, followed by Michael McDonald singing the song at his keyboard in a Florida bar. At the song’s climax, Crystal and Hines join up with him, have some beers and then dance along to and join in the song’s backing vocals as it draws to a close.

The “Running Scared” soundtrack sold well and produced three top 15 hits. The soundtrack featured performances by Klymaxx, Michael McDonald, New Edition and Patti LaBelle. Producer Rod Temperton also contributed two songs with his band The Rod Temperton Beat Wagon.

“Running Scared” was a moderate box office success, earning over $38 million at the box office. Reviews were mixed, but famous film critic Roger Ebert recommended it and commented that the film “transcends its dreary roots and turns out to be a lot of fun”. A sequel titled “Still Running” was planned and different scripts were written. But both Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines did not think any of the scripts were strong enough to warrant a sequel and they both turned them all down.

Once Billy Crystal’s name became more recognizable and “Running Scared” gained more of a fan base. It stunned people that Billy Crystal was playing an action star, something that he has never repeated after “Running Scared”. To give Billy Crystal credit, he makes a good lead and he is great in the film and I wish he made more films like this. 

It always puzzled me how Hines, before he passed away at the age of fifty seven of cancer, despite making it big on Broadway and making over 40 films. He felt like he never really crossed over to the next level of stardom. Hines had loads of charisma and not to mention solid chemistry with Billy Crystal. Both Crystal and Hines flavour the film with their nonstop banter that is rowdy, intimate, natural, very funny and has a genuine warmth. There are so many entries in the buddy cop genre that it’s easy for any film to get lost in the shuffle. That’s exactly what happened to “Running Scared”, but within the still ever popular genre it’s still one of the best. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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