A new chapter in a history of violence

'Running Scared' squanders its talent by upping the ante for gore in a mainstream film.

The hallucinatory crime thriller "Running Scared," written and directed by Wayne Kramer, is pretty awful and not something I would normally devote much space to. But it is a prime example of a distressing movie trend and is likely to be popular, so it's worth discussing.

It's not news that moviemakers, when it comes to violence, are forever trying to up the ante. Part of the reason for this is cultural: Violent times compel violent imagery. But most of the reason is less highfalutin. Megaviolence sells tickets. Since the sizable audience for these films wants to see something they haven't seen before, the stakes only get higher and higher.

"Running Scared" is about a family man, Paul Walker's Joey Gazelle, who is also a low-level Mafia soldier. His attempt to recover an incriminating gun that was used in the shooting of a corrupt cop threatens not only his wife (Vera Farmiga) and son but also his son's 10-year-old best friend, Oleg, whose abusive Russian mobster stepfather is also in pursuit of the boy.

In the course of the movie we witness any number of gougings, splatterings, slicings, and dicings, often with Oleg as an unwilling, and sometimes willing, participant. In one particularly fragrant scene, Joey's head is pressed flat onto a hockey rink while a puck is repeatedly smashed into his face. He survives undamaged. So much for showing the consequences of mayhem.

If the usual schlockmeisters had made this film it would not occasion much more than the usual alarm. But the people involved in "Running Scared" are far from untalented.

Kramer's first feature, "The Cooler," was an acclaimed indie film. Walker is a rising star whose role as a dog-loving survival guide in the current "Eight Below" is about as far as you can get from this one. (About the only thing he doesn't do here is kill a canine.) Farmiga recently won the Los Angeles Critics Association award for best actress for her role as a junkie trying to go straight in the little-seen "Down to the Bone."

When promising independent filmmakers decide to jump on the bandwagon and pump up the gore, the results are sure to be touted as visceral and unflinching. Don't be fooled. Kramer has even commented that the movie should be viewed as a modern-day Grimm's fairy tale. It's grim all right. Grade: D

Rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence and language, sexuality, and drug content.

Sex/Nudity: 9 instances, including inudendo. Violence: 31 instances. Profanity: 354 instances, mostly harsh. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 12 scenes.

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