Monday, April 23, 2007

Lest We Forget Running Scared



Somehow, somewhere the 1986 movie Running Scared fell through the cracks of the bright and shiny Hollywood streets, and my question is why? Is it not a great comedy? It is. Is it not a great buddy movie? It is. Is it not a good action movie? It is all of these. And what's more, it takes the traditional buddy cop movie and pins it so hard on its ear you would think you were second row at the WWF.

Can you think of a more unlikely pair than Billy Crystal (Danny Costanzo) and Gregory Hines (Ray Hughes)? And to play hard-nosed cops? But it works. The two play off each other like a regular Crosby and Kay, all smiles and wise-cracks. And Crystal is allowed to seamlessly work in his shtick without Hines seeming awkward or like he doesn't belong. The two are the anti-Lethal Weapon. The cops who don't seem like cops. And what's more, they don't really want to be cops anymore. Running Scared focuses on the cop mid-life crisis if you will. What happens when cops stop shooting and start thinking.

Ray Hughes: Pointing a gun at a police office. Can we waste them for that?

Danny Costanzo: I think so.

When the two have a near death experience at the hands of a drug dealer, the captain sends them on their way to Key West to take a break. It's here that they get away from the cold streets of Chicago into the sun and fun of Florida. And it's here that Michael McDonald works his sweet music magic, capturing all the carefreeness that is Florida in the song "Sweet Freedom." Well, that's all it takes. Crystal and Hines are ready to turn in their badges for good and open a bar in Key West. But the drug dealer Julio (Jimmy Smitts) who almost killed them before is out and about and ready to pull down a big drug deal (with Crystal's ex-wife as captor) and just like that, the two are back in the thick of things, busting through doors, firing big guns and forgetting to ask questions later.

Lab technician: This is real shit. This coke is pure shit.

Ray Hughes: It's good shit, right?

Lab technician: I mean bad shit.

Ray Hughes: Bad shit like "this shit is bad?"

Lab technician: It's shit shit. This shit isn't worth shit. There's barely enough coke in here to attract the dogs. Anybody caught on the street with this would get killed.

Of course they win in the end. Of course they do. And Crystal gets back together with his ex-wife and Crystal and Hines skip Key West and stay cops (if this is a spoiler to any of you, God have mercy on your soul). But this movie isn't about the formula. It's what they do with the formula that counts. First, it's the pairing of Crystal and Hines. It's risky and unexpected and it's brilliant. Second, it's the premise of cops not really wanting to be cops anymore that gives an otherwise traditional buddy movie, some depth and a soul. Third, it's Peter Hyams, an otherwise serious director (The Star Chamber, Outland, 2010 The Presidio) tackling comedy and doing it so well. And then of course there's Snake (Joe Pantoliano). Before there was Leo Getz from Lethal Weapon, the crook turned side-kick, there was Snake. An unexpected and refreshing inclusion to the formula not that there was any risk of tiring of Crystal or Hines.

Ray Hughes: Listen, Snake, here's the situation: I have this gun here. Now I am going to take the gun out and I am going to shoot a lot of holes in the door. If you are standing if front of the door, what can I tell ya? Some of the holes are gonna be in you. Ya catching my drift, Snake?

While I praise Running Scared for knocking the buddy cop formula so well, I also have to recognize how well it follows it. The comedy is there and surprisingly it still holds up well (although the Menudo joke falls hard). And the action is excellent. The car chase that takes place on the L in Chicago is arguably one of the best chase scenes of any movie. And the final showdown between the pair and Julio is as satisfying an ending as you could ask. Not too much and not too little.

A great buddy cop movie with an unlikely cast directed by an unlikely director. And yet, lightning never struck twice. Crystal and Hines never paired again. Hyams went back to serious fare and Joe Pantoliano never dyed his hair red again. And Running Scared slipped through the cracks, hardly to be remembered and rarely to be referenced, with the exception of this guy right here.

8 comments:

Burbanked said...

I am a HUGE fan of Running Scared - it was one of the first one-sheets I ever had all through college and my California years.

You make excellent points about this rarely-praised movie. The chemistry between Hines and Crystal was truly something special. Crystal's been good since - but he's been Crystal; he's never again played an actual three-dimensional character that you can care about more than "Oh, Billy Crystal is a funny guy".

I got the chance to meet Hyams once because he was a Syracuse alum and the school set up meetings with a handful of us kooky film students to meet bunch of movie industry types who had been SU grads. He was really a great guy, generous with his time and had spectacular advice. I always wished his career wasn't quite as hacky as it's become.

Why isn't a good version of this on DVD? There are so many movies like this that seem to have fallen off the radar and it's really a shame.

garrett said...

Good to see you reference this movie. This flick has always stuck with me and I'm really happy that you mentioned Michael McDonald's Sweet Freedom. This is a favorite on my Ipod. What a great montage while they're in Key West...the roller skating in the short shorts, the deep sea fishing. Priceless. I need to go ahead and buy this movie.

Guy said...

Awesome movie. The M. Mcdonald Florida scene is a classic music movie montage complete with fake booby shirts

Joe Valdez said...

10 points for resurrecting another overlooked classic from the vault, Piper.

I saw this when I was 13 and thought it was even better than Beverly Hills Cop. I also recall a teaser trailer with Hines & Crystal doing some sort of improv outside a doorway that was put together just for the trailer.

MGM must have anticipated this would be a blockbuster and it does seem like it's fallen by the wayside. So many great one-liners but it somehow fits within the whole cops and robbers get-up.

Best bit: Joey Pants goofing around on a police radio. "Calling all cars! A UFO has just landed on Michigan Avenue." Hines punches him out through the car window and gets in with Crystal without them even acknowledging anything.

Another one added to my Netflix queue!

Joseph B. said...

I loved this movie when I was a kid. Yes, I watched it when I was about 12 or 13 years old. It was on HBO constantly and I remember having to watch it late at night. It was certainly the most profane movie I'd ever seen up until that point and there was something shocking about the film's violence that made me realize this was something more than another buddy action movie. It's been ages since I've seen it. Might be time for a re-watch.

Joseph B. said...

I loved this movie when I was a kid. Yes, I watched it when I was about 12 or 13 years old. It was on HBO constantly and I remember having to watch it late at night. It was certainly the most profane movie I'd ever seen up until that point and there was something shocking about the film's violence that made me realize this was something more than another buddy action movie. It's been ages since I've seen it. Might be time for a re-watch.

Joseph B. said...

I loved this movie when I was a kid. Yes, I watched it when I was about 12 or 13 years old. It was on HBO constantly and I remember having to watch it late at night. It was certainly the most profane movie I'd ever seen up until that point and there was something shocking about the film's violence that made me realize this was something more than another buddy action movie. It's been ages since I've seen it. Might be time for a re-watch.

Piper said...

Joseph,

A point so important, it got posted 3 times.