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(2006) (Paul Walker, Cameron Bright) (R)

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Action: A low-level mobster attempts to stay ahead of the police, Russian thugs and his own associates while trying to find a missing neighbor boy who used a hot mob gun to shoot his abusive father-in-law.
Joey Gazelle (PAUL WALKER) is a low-level member of a New Jersey based, Italian mob syndicate who works alongside Sal "Gummy Bear" Franzone (MICHAEL CUDLITZ) for Tommy "Tombs" Perello (JOHNNY MESSNER). When a drug deal goes bad and a bunch of corrupt cops are killed, Tommy tells Joey to get rid of the guns that were involved.

But rather than ditch them, Joey hides them in a secret wall panel in the basement of the home he shares with wife Teresa (VERA FARMIGA) and son Nicky (ALEX NEUBERGER). Unbeknownst to him, Nicky and his 10-year-old next door neighbor Oleg Yugorsky (CAMERON BRIGHT) know about the stash.

Thus, one night while having dinner, Joey and his family hear gunshots ring out from Oleg having shot his abusive stepfather, Anzor (KAREL RODEN), a John Wayne loving criminal who generates crystal meth when not beating Oleg's mother, former hooker Mila (IVANA MILICEVIC).

Oleg immediately goes on the run, prompting Joey to rush in, find any slugs and try to retrieve the gun before the cops link it back to the earlier shootings, thus implicating him in the crimes. As Oleg encounters a number underworld characters that night -- including hooker Divina (IDALIS DeLEON) and her abusive pimp Lester (DAVID WARSHOFSKY), as well as the creepy pedophilic couple Dez (BRUCE ALTMAN) and Adele (ELIZABETH MITCHELL) -- Joey tries to stay one step ahead of members of both the Yugorsky and Perello crime families as well as a corrupt cop, Detective Rydell (CHAZZ PALMITERI), all of whom want the boy and missing gun.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Just as there can be deeper meaning to a person's words than what's heard on the surface, movies can also have layers of subtext that aren't always visible in one viewing. Take, for instance, "Running Scared," a film that appears on the surface to be just a hard hitting, action flick where the bullets and fists fly as fast and as often as the expletives and criminal actions. It's the sort of film that's usually of the dime a dozen variety that ends up playing forever on late night cable or satellite channels.

Yet, for all of its liberal use of genre conventions -- bad cops, drugs, Russian thugs, beautiful women, etc. -- there seems to be something more at work here than initially meets the eye. For starters, it's directed by Wayne Kramer who helmed the fairly smart if similarly brutal "The Cooler." While directors have been known to "slum it" after some success to get bigger bucks, for some reason my gut tells me that's not entirely the case here.

The more telling sign, however, is a sequence that initially doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the film. It's where young Oleg -- played by Cameron Bright with those soul-piercing eyes of his -- suddenly finds himself in the home of a couple (Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell) who, like the film, have initially hidden motives. As the sequence unfolds and gets more disturbing as it progresses, Kramer takes an intriguing approach by having the boy see the silhouetted shapes of the adults as monsters (with exaggerated, angular features and sharp, claw-like fingers).

In doing so, it takes on something of a fairy tale demeanor (something akin to Alice in Wonderland meets Hansel & Gretel). And when coupled with the realization that much of the carnage and mayhem either directly involves or occurs in the presence of kids, it becomes more apparent that Kramer -- who also penned the screenplay -- is doing something more than just exploiting them in what otherwise seems like an average action flick.

Perhaps he's exploring the vicious cycle of male-oriented violence where boys are exposed to such behavior only to grow up and eventually emulate it (and then keep the cycle going with their own kids). Then again, he could be after something else related or entirely different. Whatever the case, it adds some depth and context -- despite not being perfectly executed -- to this hard-hitting and decidedly adult offering.

Does that make the film better? Not exactly, as the filmmaker seems to have shortchanged some of the genre elements in favor of that subtext. Notwithstanding all of the mature and even perverse material, it isn't the worst such film I've ever seen (or, more accurately, experienced), but then again, it's far from the best.

Shot, edited and otherwise visualized like a less hyper (and thus less irritating) version of most any Tony Scott film (remember "Domino?"), the film contains a fairly simply, yet multi-layered story. Paul Walker -- who wouldn't be my first choice to play the gritty, flawed and conflicted action hero but actually manages to be tolerable despite a forced accent -- plays a low-level mobster and family man whose assignment is quite simple.

All he has to do is dispose of a gun used in a shootout that turns out to have involved some corrupt cops who are now dead. Yet, rather than toss it in some river, he stashes it with other weapons in his basement. Unbeknownst to him, his son and Bright's character see that happen, with Oleg then using that gun to try to kill his abusive stepfather -- played with appropriate seedy menace by Karel Roden.

Realizing that could spell disaster if the cops link the gun to the earlier shootings, Joey then tries to retrieve the slugs, weapon and boy. But the latter has disappeared into that Wonderland style rabbit hole, leading to all of the action that follows, most of which, as mentioned earlier, involves one or both boys (where everyone wants Oleg and Alex Neuberger's character can't seem to manage to follow his father's instructions to stay put).

Kramer and company manage to create some memorable and even powerful scenes, such as when the fabulous Vera Farmiga (playing Joey's wife) uncharacteristically goes Dirty Harry on the aforementioned perverted couple. Yet, as a whole, the film never really manages to gel into a satisfying (if you can call it that) offering of the genre.

For those who like gritty action flicks, this one doesn't pull any punches when it comes to its decidedly adult content, and that might be enough for "connoisseurs" of such movies. There's certainly action aplenty, but without a tight reign on the material (not even considering the disappointing, cop-out ending), and with that intriguing subtext ultimately clouding matters rather than enhancing them, "Running Scared" ends up as just a mediocre entry in the action genre. It rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 7, 2006 / Posted February 24, 2006

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