Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Film Review: RUNNING SCARED (1986, Peter Hyams)

Stars: 3.7 of 5.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
Tag-line: "Two of Chicago's Finest?"
Notable Cast or Crew: Gregory Hines (THE COTTON CLUB, WOLFEN), Billy Crystal (CITY SLICKERS II: THE LEGEND OF CURLY'S GOLD), Jimmy Smits (THE BELIEVERS, PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE, DEXTER), Steven Bauer (RAISING CAIN, SCARFACE), Darlanne Fluegel (TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., BULLETPROOF), Joe Pantoliano (THE MATRIX, RISKY BUSINESS), Dan Hedaya (BLOOD SIMPLE, COMMANDO, MULHOLLAND DR.), Jon Gries (TERRORVISION, JOYSTICKS, Roger Linus on TV's LOST).
Best one-liner: "Excuse me, we're from Noisebusters. Do you know where the Menudo concert is?"

There's a rich history of buddy cop movies. Now while these movies, from time to time, tend to get a little zany, they generally remain well-entrenched in the crime genre. But allow me to make a distinction- there's also a rich history of ZANY buddy cop movies. While the initial emergence may have been earlier, I'll say that the subgenre really came into its own in 1974, which saw the releases of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN and Hyams' own BUSTING. And, boy, were they zany. But they were gritty, too. And it's to this tradition that RUNNING SCARED belongs. This is the sort of movie where Gregory Hines has occasion to howl "We lost the suspect, our car, our keys, our PANTS!" and in a nutshell, that's all you need to know. Are there gonna be two whacky buddies with little respect for authority?
Is there gonna be a harebrained scheme to win back a lost love? Is there gonna be a supervisor who thinks they should stick to procedure and stop acting like a couple of loose cannons? Is there gonna be a no-nonsense villain who's less than entertained by their crime-bustin' antics and decides to raise the stakes till shit gets real?
Don't ask questions you already know the answers to. All the answers you need are in "We lost the suspect, our car, our keys, our PANTS!"

Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal are our two Chicago nutballs. They're the kinds of cops who wear sports jerseys all the time and are always ducking into ladies' restrooms to avoid well-deserved subpoenas. They've got a gadget-makin' man named Ace (played by Larry Hankin) who's basically the Q to their collective, kooky James Bond. Their boss, Dan Hedaya, has got a bug up his ass and an extremely low tolerance for guys who think they're real cowboys.
Crystal and Hines do a lot of cracking wise, sock a lot of crooks in the face, and nurture their bad attitudes like hobos tending to a garbage can flame. And am I the only one who thinks that back in the 80's when they were doing a lot of those socially insensitive one-joke comedies, they should've done one where Gregory Hines and Vincent Schiavelli played separated at birth brothers, maybe in some bizarre mash-up of TWINS, SOUL MAN, and THE JERK?

Annnyway, the plot is this: after their latest maverick-style hijinks screw up a long-running undercover operation (run by Steven Bauer and Jon Gries), supervisor Hedaya says "You're on vacation... effective NOW!!!" Luckily for Hines and Crystal, one of those subpoenas that couldn't be avoided turned out to be a notice that Crystal had come into some money, which leads to a soothing holiday in the Florida Keys. As they say, "If there's anything worse than dyin' young, it's dyin' young with money in the bank." Without warning, Michael McDonald's "Sweet Freedom" accompanies a montage of sailing, relaxation, and our well-oiled heroes feeding each other beers.
Yep, down in Florida, they find a fixer-upper, some roller skates, and a sense of purpose.
I don't know how clear it is from this screencap, but, yes, that is a high-five.

But the windy city's not done with them yet. They have two loose ends to tie up- A. Crystal must win back his ex, Darlanne Fluegel (who's literally blanketed in a sea of flannel) and B. They have to settle the score with Jimmy Smits, who seeks to be "the first Spanish godfather of Chicago."
Along the way, there's a chase on the EL track (trying to outdo THE FRENCH CONNECTION?),
a tattoo parlor torture session, Billy Crystal gets to pretend to be an old man watching Jeopardy, and in one well-choreographed scene, our heroes' car is snared and lowered into a garbage truck.
The performances are a cut above the norm, and astoundingly so when compared to the state of the whacky cop genre today. Joe Pantoliano gets a nice supporting role as a cheap crook with a shock of red hair and a lot of smartass comebacks,
and Jon Gries begins to transition from his early typecasting phase (as a crazed, leather-and-stud-encrusted metal fan, like in JOYSTICKS and TERRORVISION) to his later typecasting phase (as a middle-aged asshole, like in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE).
Just the kind of asshole who'd put his feet up on your desk.

Al Leong, aka 'the quintessential 80's henchman,' even makes an uncredited appearance as, you guessed it- a henchman. (Also seen in DIE HARD, LETHAL WEAPON, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, ACTION JACKSON, MY SCIENCE PROJECT, and THE A-TEAM.)

Jimmy Smits, however, nearly steals the whole damn show. I've said it before, and I'll say it again- Jimmy Smits one of the most criminally underrated actors working today. And don't arch your eyebrows like that- sure he was in THE TOMMYKNOCKERS and sure he was in the STAR WARS prequels, but he was having a blast. He showed up on DEXTER Season 3 and was so damn good, they nearly renamed the show 'MIGUEL.' He uses physicality and a complete connectedness to the material in order to perfectly manipulate the art of acting for the screen- he makes it intimate, and he gets in your face- similar in technique to my favorite scary Dutchman, Rutger Hauer. When he's the villain, you'll be ducking under your couch. He even gets to applaud our heroes with a seething, evil golf clap.
JIMMY SMITS WILL GIVE YOU INSINCERE POSITIVE FEEDBACK

In all, it's predictable, clichéd, and kiiinda stupid, but the old-Hollywood style workmanship, likably talented actors, and absurd Michael McDonald montage push this thing to nearly four stars.

-Sean Gill


3 comments:

J.D. said...

I couldn't agree more. Yeah, it reeks of '80s cliches and really isn't all that good but, for me, is a guilty pleasure that I could never really defend to anyone. But as you point out, it is waaaay better than the zany buddy cop films we get nowadays (COP OUT anyone?).

And yeah, let's hear it for Jimmy Smits! He's THE man. Also, check him out in THE BELIEVERS, a voodoo thriller starring Martin Sheen. Smits steals every scene as a tragic cop who becomes a victim of the creepy voodoo witch doctor who's running around NYC. Your heart really goes out to Smits and his empathetic performance guarantees not a dry eye in the house when he finally meets his demise.

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, exactly- sure, it's fluff, but it's not SOULLESS fluff. And I think anyone could see the difference even from a random freeze frame comparison between something like RUNNING SCARED and, as you say, COP OUT (which I've only suffered in the form of TV spots thus far).

I do plan on checking out THE BELIEVERS soon. From the trailer, I'm kind of envisioning something like THE SENTINEL- for the 80's! (which is a great thing, as far as I'm concerned)

J.D. said...

I'm not a huge Martin Sheen fan but he acquits himself quite admirably in THE BELIEVERS. And you've got the ever-entertaining/gruff Robert Loggia as a hard-boiled cop (could he play any other kind?).