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‘Running Scared’ is a ridiculous trip

Full of absurd digressions, Wayne Kramer’s film never quite makes sense

Writer-director Wayne Kramer works hard to turn his latest picture, “Running Scared,” into an operatic, unpredictable and thoroughly outlandish crime drama. Shooting for the sublime, he mostly achieves the ridiculous.

If you saw his 2003 film, “The Cooler,” you know he can’t resist coincidences and limitless plot twists. But he couldn’t pull off the crazy premise of that film, and he’s no more successful with the outrageous storyline of his new movie.

At first, “Running Scared” appears to be a straightforward if rather artily photographed melodrama about a small-time gangster named Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) who gets in trouble when a neighbor’s abused child, Oleg Yugorsky (Cameron Bright), borrows his gun. Earlier in the day, during a disastrous shoot-out, the gun was used to kill an undercover cop, and Joey is desperate to retrieve it.

Eventually Joey’s own son Nicky (Alex Neuberger) and his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) get involved, and so do a pushy detective (Chazz Palminteri) and several other crooks. In scene after scene, guns are pulled and directed at people’s heads as the characters try out every conceivable variation on the “F word.”

But what’s really distinctive about the picture, and what makes it memorable in a bad-movie kind of way, is how it stops telling this story and jumps down the rabbit hole to pursue other narrative options.

Kramer takes one long detour for a nostalgic monologue that deals with the obsolete phenomenon of condensed 8mm versions of feature films (John Wayne’s “The Cowboys” comes in for a shellacking). Later he introduces a seemingly benign couple who specialize in imitating “Sesame Street” hosts as they kidnap and torment small children.

There’s also a prolonged, spectacular shoot-out in a hockey stadium, which escalates from hockey pucks used as lethal weapons to machine guns aimed at a child. As with so many episodes in “Running Scared,” the color is drained and desaturated, editing tricks play with time, and Kramer’s transparent attempts at trying to be different simply become laughable.

The absurd digressions suggest Quentin Tarantino, the obsession with non-stop profanity hints at David Mamet, the visual style recalls Tony Scott and Oliver Stone’s transformations of Tarantino’s scripts, but the lunacy is all Kramer. If you bought the premise of  “The Cooler,” well, welcome to “Running Scared.”

Kramer did guide Alec Baldwin to his only Oscar nomination for “The Cooler,” although he hasn’t worked similar wonders with Walker, who disappears for surprisingly long stretches. He’s better when he’s cast as heroic characters like the one he plays in the current Disney hit, “Eight Below.”

Kramer is more successful with Farmiga, who recently won the Los Angeles Film Critics’ award for best actress for the little-seen independent film, “Down to the Bone,” and brings a touch of class to this project. He also makes good use of Bright, who capitalizes on the spooky persona he established in “Godsend” and “Birth,” while adding a dash of mischief that couldn’t be more welcome.