A ferociously energetic piece of filmmaking, "Running Scared" makes the seedy Vegas milieu of writer-director Wayne Kramer's first feature, "The Cooler," look as tasteful as "The Sound of Music." Starring Paul Walker in a confident new vein as a lowly mobster desperate to protect his family, this nasty little number offers a harrowing descent into a New Jersey underworld replete with hoods, hookers and hot merchandise.

A ferociously energetic piece of filmmaking, “Running Scared” makes the seedy Vegas milieu of writer-director Wayne Kramer’s first feature, “The Cooler,” look as tasteful as “The Sound of Music.” Starring Paul Walker in a confident new vein as a lowly mobster desperate to protect his family, this nasty little number offers a harrowing descent into a New Jersey underworld replete with hoods, hookers and hot merchandise. Potent low-budget acquisition should perform solidly for New Line, though the extreme violence and aggressively sordid atmosphere will test audience limits.

Like “The Cooler,” Kramer’s sophomore effort tells an earnest love story wrapped in sleazy ambience, albeit pitched at a much higher and more frightening level of intensity. Pic is dedicated to Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma and Walter Hill, and it boasts enough graphic bloodshed, sinuous camerawork and robust genre smarts to warrant the gesture.

A botched drug deal involving the Italian Perello mob triggers the breathless opening shootout, which ends with the death of a dirty cop. Low-level Perello operator Joey Gazelle (Walker) is ordered to quickly dispose of the snub-nosed revolver used in the killing, a task that’s easier said than done.

Upon returning home to his loving wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga), Joey stashes the hot revolver in the basement, an act witnessed by his young son Nicky (Alex Neuberger) and Nicky’s neighbor friend Oleg (Cameron Bright).

Oleg’s family — abusive, John Wayne-obsessed stepfather Anzor (Karel Roden) and quietly suffering mother Mila (Ivana Milicevic) — are introduced in a tense, beautifully paced and shot sequence that whooshes back and forth between the two houses in a series of bravura tracking shots. Set piece culminates with Oleg using the hidden revolver to shoot his stepfather and then escaping into the night.

This throws Joey into a panic, not only because the gun is out in the open, but because Anzor is a member of the Russian Yugorsky mob, which has shady dealings of its own with Perello clan chief Frankie (Arthur Nascarella).

Conflict between Joey’s dual identities as expert assassin and devoted family man — as well as his need to shield Nicky and Oleg from corruption — at times suggests a latter-day “Road to Perdition,” but plays out with less pretension and considerably more pulpy vigor. Still, there’s no denying that viewers not prepared for the relentless stream of nasty personalities, profane invective and bone-crunching violence are in for a very long sit.

Walker (currently onscreen in “Eight Below”) anchors the proceedings with perhaps his most authoritative and sustained leading-man perf to date, though his macho anguish at times borders on one-note. Continuing her ascent following her breakthrough turn in “Down to the Bone,” Farmiga proves more than Walker’s match, playing Teresa as a sexy, tender yet highly formidable mother lion.

But it’s 13-year-old Bright — possessed of the same unnerving inquietude he displayed in “Birth” — who best dramatizes the story’s concern for the plight of endangered children. The scenes unfolding from his perspective have a nightmarishly surreal “Wizard of Oz” quality that at times defies explanation. Pic’s most gripping sequence seems to come out of nowhere, a shockingly creepy episode that sees Oleg held captive by a devious married couple (Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell).

Nothing that follows is nearly as intriguing, least of all the graphic final showdown between the Perellos and the Yugorskys. Concluding reel, though it delivers the necessary emotional wrap-up, feels implausible and tacked-on.

Sexual frankness is one of Kramer’s calling cards as a director, and while it lacks “The Cooler’s” full-frontal daring, pic is far more revealing than most mainstream fare. Somewhat more disturbingly, helmer’s fondness for scenes focusing on the abuse and humiliation of women — albeit in ways that invite sympathy rather than contempt — is again very much in evidence.

James Whitaker’s cinematography, relying heavily on Steadicam and crane shots, dazzles with a desaturated palette that nevertheless has a rich, grimy luster. Arthur Coburn’s hyperkinetic editing makes deft use of jump cuts, split-second fast-forwards and rewinds, while Mark Isham’s arrestingly off-kilter score plays a crucial role in keeping auds unnerved.

That the film is set in New Jersey but was shot largely in Prague only compounds the oddity of the project.

Running Scared

Production

A New Line Cinema release in association with Media 8 Entertainment of a Media 8 Entertainment/True Grit production of a VIP Medienfonds1&2/MDP Filmproduktion co-production. Produced by Michael Pierce, Brett Ratner, Sammy Lee. Executive producers, Andrew Pfeffer, Stewart Hall, Andreas Grosch, Andreas Schmid, Matt Luber. Co-producer, Kevan Van Thompson. Directed, written by Wayne Kramer.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Arri widescreen), James Whitaker; editor, Arthur Coburn; music, Mark Isham; music supervisor, Brian Ross; production designer, Toby Corbett; set decorator, Susan Kaufman; costume designer, Kristin Burke; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), T.J. O'Mara; supervising sound editors, Scott Hecker, Byron Wilson; line producer, Kevan Van Thompson; visual effects supervisor, Jeffry Wood; special effects supervisor, Rudolf Potancok; stunt coordinator, Joel Kramer; assistant directors, James Sbardellati, Petr Kaderabek; casting, Anne McCarthy, Jay Scully. Reviewed at the Grove, Los Angeles, Feb. 21, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Joey Gazelle - Paul Walker Oleg Yugorsky - Cameron Bright Teresa Gazelle - Vera Farmiga Anzor Yugorsky - Karel Roden Tommy "Tombs" Perello - Johnny Messner Mila Yugorsky - Ivana Milicevic Detective Rydell - Chazz Palminteri
With: Alex Neuberger, Michael Cudlitz, Bruce Altman, Elizabeth Mitchell, Arthur Nascarella, John Noble, Idalis DeLeon, David Warshofsky.

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