Would it be tempting fate to call "Running Scared" the worst movie of the year already? Especially since the year has produced so many turkeys it's starting to feel like Thanksgiving in February? Maybe it'll persuade fate to have a little mercy, because it's hard to imagine what worse than "Running Scared" would be like. Not to mention worrisome, and profoundly depressing.
Written and directed by Wayne Kramer, who co-wrote and directed "The Cooler," "Running Scared" stars Paul Walker as a low-level mafia guy who finds himself in for a long, ultraviolent night after his son's best friend steals a gun used in a mob police massacre and uses it to shoot his abusive stepfather. If this sounds like a respectably run-of-the-mill plot for a respectable run-of-the-mill "popcorn" thriller (and it's compulsory to defend those, right? On the grounds that people love their junk and shouldn't be made to feel bad about it?), it's because synopsis cannot do justice to this kitsch atrocity.
If the title rings a bell, it may be thanks to the viral (never has the word seemed so apt) marketing magic of an online game New Line Cinema created to promote it, screen shots of which were posted all over the Internet. In the game, the player gets to be Walker's virtual head pleasuring his virtual movie wife. It's a tease for a moment that never quite arrives in the movie -- just as Joey can only think about sex after a hard day's slaughter at close range, wife Terry (Vera Farmiga), from whom he keeps no secrets, can only think about her spaghetti sauce -- but it encapsulates the vulgarity and self-loathing that hangs over this movie like a toxic smog.
Joey hides the gun in his basement, not noticing that his kid and his kid's neighbor friend Oleg (creepy Cameron Bright) are watching. No sooner has the meth-addicted, John Wayne-tattooed Russian stepfather next door slapped Oleg's dinner to the ground and rubbed his mother's face in it, than Oleg puts the gun to use. The conceit is that if the gun that shot Anzor Yugorsky (Karel Roden) is discovered to be the same gun that shot a dirty cop in a dirty place, Joey will be dead. We know this because he spells it out in front of his wife and son as though he were talking about a tough day at the ham-processing plant. If Tony Soprano were watching, he would walk out and politely demand his money back, probably without stooping to violence.
By the time Joey catches up with the errant child, Oleg has barely survived an armed drug dispute in a crack treehouse in the park, narrowly avoided having his face sliced open by a self-described "Mac Daddy pimp," forged a friendship with a kind-hearted, filthy-mouthed hooker, and barely escaped the clutches of a pair of perky mom-and-pop child-snuff porn producers. As the movie becomes more howlingly ludicrous by the second, it's tempting -- and not in a cynical way, either -- to start reading it as a parody of pornographic video game violence. How else to explain the absurdly desaturated footage (is it a European shaving cream ad?), the horror-movie sets and the let's-shoot-the-police-badge-from-15-angles-Tony-Scott-style aesthetic abuse? In fact, "Running Scared" is so desperate and surreally stupid that all you would have to do to see it as a brilliant sendup of everything that is corrupt, vulgar, sad, deluded and bad-for-you about Hollywood is squint. But that game is old and tedious, and a glance at the list of producers suggests that what we have here is a sincere grab at coolness -- that eternal, elusive questing beast of the middle-aged, well-remunerated and grip-deprived. It's not so bad for Walker, who is just modeling through. But it's a shame about Farmiga, as some of the praise recently heaped on her is bound to be shoveled off after this. As for the kids allowed to appear in soul-choking poison like this -- don't we have laws?
MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong, brutal violence and language, sexuality and drug content
A New Line Cinema release. Writer-director Wayne Kramer. Producers Michael Pierce, Brett Ratner, Sammy Lee. Cinematographer James Whitaker. Editor Arthur Coburn. Running time 1 hour, 59 minutes.
In general release.