Running Scared

(2006) ** 1/2 R
119 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Wayne Kramer. Cast: Paul Walker, Cameron Bright, Vera Farmiga, Karel Roden, Johnny Messner.

"Red ice! Red ice!" Young New Jersey Razors fans chant in anticipation of another bloody hockey showdown, but violence-seekers get more than they bargain for in the unsparing new potboiler Running Scared. Like his first film (2003's The Cooler), Wayne Kramer's latest thrives on ugliness. Domestic abuse, kids in mortal danger, and vigilante slayings (positioned for maximum audience enjoyment) are all part of the big picture. But those tired of namby-pamby, watered-down PG-13 actioners can bare their big, bad teeth in glee: the better to sink them into Running Scared.

Indeed, writer-director Kramer plays off of a grim(m) fairy-tale aesthetic. This terrible journey through an urban forest has more than its share of unsavory boogeymen: an abusive dad, scads of underworld undesirables and dirty cops, and even a pair of pedophiles (watch and listen carefully for Kramer's tossed-off allusions). At the eye of the dark storm is "shady, sleazy, mixed-up" Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker). Mobbed-up hood Gazelle pulls armed jobs to bring home the bacon to wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and son Nicky (Alex Neuberger), but one night winds up with a hot gun on his hands. When Nicky's ballsy best friend Oleg (Cameron Bright of Birth, again incisive) takes off with the piece, Joey has to find the kid before the cops seize the gun.

Despite many of the same reckless-narrative problems as The Cooler (shallowness and overstatement among them), and a less-stellar cast, Running Scared succeeds as a guilty pleasure. Walker shows some personality, for once, Kramer stokes kinetic energy and hard-R intensity, and the twistiness of the plot will keep viewers on their toes. Kramer gets good value from a grainy, dirty-gritty look and the dialogue percolates with profanity. The kid-talk is likewise satisfyingly natural: while on the mean streets in the wee hours, a hopeful Nicky asks if he'll have to go to school in the morning.

In accordance with one of Hollywood's most perfidious instincts, Kramer encourages his presumably lusty, vengeful audience to cheer cold-blooded murder (of very bad guys, granted, but still...). On the other hand, Kramer's tongue-in-cheeky references to Charles Bronson and John Wayne suggest it's all in bad fun. Kramer's film may amount to no more than a punch to the gut, but for those seeking a testosterone-fueled action thriller, Running Scared is just the ticket.

[For Groucho's interview with Paul Walker and Wayne Kramer, click here.]

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