A Mob Death Threat Scares a Compelling Performance Out of Paul Walker
No one will ever mistake Paul Walker for a great actor. Maybe it’s a bit harsh, but he’s always come across as the semiretarded love child of Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey. Consider his performance as undercover FBI agent Brian O’Conner in The Fast and the Furious and its even more redundant sequel; by comparison, Keanu Reeves’ similar turn in Point Break is like watching Laurence Olivier perform King Lear. Maybe that’s why Walker’s performance as New Jersey mob flunky Joey Gazelle in Running Scared—no, not a remake of the Billy Crystal comedy—comes as such a mind-boggling surprise. For almost the entire movie, Walker becomes a study in terror. His fear is so palpable that he makes what would’ve otherwise been a bland thriller into something truly, well, thrilling.
Gazelle is not a nice guy. He facilitates drug deals, he shoots other drug dealers, he makes guns used in violent crimes disappear. In other words, he’s a scumbag. But, hey, he’s a loving family man with a good kid, a stroked-out father slowly dying in front of his TV, and a wife he likes to go down on while she’s doing laundry—why wouldn’t you want to root for him when one of his hot guns, which he mysteriously hides in his basement as collateral, goes missing and the mob threatens his life?
So why does Gazelle’s late-night odyssey to retrieve this gun work? It’s all about Walker. As soon as he realizes that the gun his son Nicky’s best friend, Oleg (Cameron Bright), used to shoot his physically abusive stepfather and ex-Russian mobster, Anzor (Karel Roden), was stolen from his hideaway, Walker transforms the thuggish nitwit into a fear-stricken animal. He trembles, he pants, he lashes out when touched.
Think about it: If someone told you you’d be dead by morning if you didn’t find something—say a VHS copy of Roman Polanski’s Pirates—would you be able to unclench your teeth even as you spoke or not violently shake your son—yes, your son—when he became evasive about where that bastard Russian neighbor’s kid might’ve hidden it? Fortunately for writer and director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler), he doesn’t push Gazelle so far that he’d hurt his own family—even though there’s more than one occasion when the whiny son deserves catching a backhand or even a whole fist. At least Gazelle has the balls to shout, “You just fucking killed me, Nick. You just fucking killed me.”
It is difficult to swallow, a father accusing his young son of such a thing, but it’s the situation: Fear promotes illogical behavior, which means cruelly barking at your wife and kid feels as sensible as bringing an umbrella to work when the weatherman forecasts heavy rain. There’s something true in Gazelle’s reaction and Walker’s conveyance of it.
Eventually, the Russian mob becomes involved when someone gets the crazy idea Gazelle sent Oleg next door to kill his meth-cooking neighbor, a crooked cop (Chazz Palminteri, playing the same role he’s been playing for 20 years) tries to extort money from Gazelle’s Italian mob buddies, and Oleg escapes from a crackhead, then a pimp, and, finally, with the help of Gazelle’s wife, Teresa (Vera Famiga), a couple of child molesters who line their apartment’s toy-room floor with plastic. There’s even the obligatory mob-movie cluster-fuck ending: this time, it’s at the center of a black-light-lit, neon-colored hockey rink, with Gazelle chest down on the ice while mob cronies take slap shots at his noggin. And Walker keeps you there with him the whole time.
In many ways, Running Scared is a movie about good and evil and the sundry shades of it that allow noble persons to deliver violent retribution and ignoble persons to become unexpected heroes. This is a credit to Kramer, who follows up his brilliant, small The Cooler with a Brett Ratner-produced movie chock-full of Matrix-fu FX and flashy sound editing. You might question why he’d go such a route, considering The Cooler’s art-house recognition, but think about it: This guy made Paul Walker look like a real actor. If he can do that, what can’t he do?