Running Scared is one of the finest examples of The Jungle Fever Cookie Buddy Movie. Pioneered by Skin Game and made profitable by 48 Hrs., the JFCBM purports to promote racial harmony through the magic of macho male bonding between African-Americans and Caucasians. Yet the darker hued partners in these movies were always levels beneath their White counterparts: Lou Gossett was a slave to Jim Garner’s slave trader, and Eddie Murphy was a common criminal punched out and called racial slurs by a pre-mugshot Nick Nolte. If that’s equality, Amy Winehouse is sober. Running Scared has something no JFCBM has, not even the more balanced Lethal Weapon series: It starts with the two buddies firmly entrenched in a bromance Judd Apatow would envy.
I’d never have thought Billy Crystal would be convincing holding a gun, but not only does he pull off the role of a cop with issues, he has an intense chemistry with his co-star, Gregory Hines. An unlikely pair, Hines and Crystal bicker like an old married couple; they are so convincing that you almost feel as if you’re eavesdropping. How much of this inspired, hilarious dialogue belongs to screenwriters Gary DeVore and Jimmy Houston is unknown to me, but most of it feels improvised and coming from a place of genuine affection. Though this is an ’80s action movie, the violent situations in which our heroes find themselves are tempered by their absurdity. Much of the credit in keeping Running Scared afloat belongs to Hines and Crystal. Whether barely escaping being crushed in a garbage truck compactor or running down perps in their long johns, they never lose the easygoing charm of their partnership.
I really, really like this movie.
It almost pains me to say that, as it is directed by Peter Hyams. Cinematographer-director Hyams hasn’t met a genre he hasn’t transformed into a dull, lifeless movie. He succeeded Kubrick for 2010, remade The Narrow Margin and gave Jean-Claude Van Damme one of the dumbest scenes in his oeuvre (see his bullshit jump-and-split taser scene in Timecop). Hyams’ direction is like a Midwestern accent: It is completely devoid of any discernable characteristics whatsoever. His only rebuke of that statement is this movie, and credit is deserved where it is due; Hyams’ handling of Scared’s car chase centerpiece alone is enough to shut me up.
Hines and Crystal play Detectives Ray Hughes and Danny Constanzo, two Chicago cop partners in platonic love who chase criminals and get chewed out by their boss, Dan Hedaya. Costanzo has an ex-wife he still loves, and Hughes is a player who easily gets women. You know these two are best friends because, when Costanzo interrupts Hughes energetically banging some woman, Hughes isn’t even angry. That, my friends, is love.
Costanzo and Hughes are fixated on bringing down Julio Gonzalez, a bigshot drug dealer who drives a fancy car and loves his dope. As played by a pre-LA Law Jimmy Smits, Gonzalez is an itchy Latino stereotype, Scarface with an authentic Hispanic pedigree and an equal amount of The White Girl. Smits brings a snarky, clever charm to Gonzalez, taunting our heroes while outsmarting them with his elusiveness. He’s entertaining enough to make you forget the screenplay’s lazy, late-act kidnapping of Constanzo’s ex-wife.
After their latest run-in with Gonzalez nearly gets them killed, Chief Hedaya forces Hughes and Constanzo on vacation. They hit Key West and, this being an ’80s picture, their visit to one of my favorite places on Earth gets its own montage. While Michael MacDonald sings about Sweet Freedom on the soundtrack, the guys decide to quit the force and retire to bar ownership in the Sunshine State. The city of Chicago has other plans for the duo, who find it hard to leave their careers while Gonzalez roams free and their replacements (Steven Bauer and Jon Gries) hungrily drool over their perp.
Chicago is another character in Running Scared, and Hyams, sensing that he is treading on the hallowed ground laid by The Blues Brothers 6 years prior, goes for broke in the film’s big action set piece. Chasing Gonzalez for the umpteenth time, Costanzo and Hughes find themselves driving on the Chicago El. This is pre-CGI, so Gonzalez’s caddy and our heroes’ souped up, bulletproof taxi (don’t ask) are really driving on the El. A priest and nun (another nod to The Blues Brothers) are the taxi’s fare, helplessly dragged along to what seems like sudden death by train. This sequence is so many things: it’s hilarious, suspenseful, breathtaking, exciting and a thoroughly ridiculous reminder of ’80s excess. Hyams directs it for maximum returns, and it is well-shot and edited. The post-chase last scene with the nun (who responds to her mistaken identity by Constanzo the way only a nun can) is worth sitting through Running Scared.
While delivering the desired outcome, Running Scared’s climax seems rushed and forced, a somewhat tired shoot-out that could have been less clumsily developed by the script. Before it, however, we are treated to Hines and Crystal interacting with Joey Pants in an early role, their hoopty being spray-painted with “UNMARKED POLICE CAR” (the film poster’s iconic image), and yet another montage scored by the writer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Rod Temperton. In the end, justice is served and Costanzo not only gets back his ex-wife, he also manages to keep the true love of his life, Detective Ray Hughes.
Besides the utter enjoyment of revisiting this picture, I got something even more valuable out of this viewing of Running Scared: a sentimental sense of nostalgia. Running Scared was the last film I saw at the Loews Jersey Theatre before it shut down in 1986. This was one of the theaters of my childhood, slated to be torn down but saved by landmark designation. Opened in 1929, the Loews introduced me to Helen Hayes (via Herbie the Love Bug), Bette Davis (via Witch Mountain), Jason Voorhees (in five of the six Friday the 13ths), Flashdance, The Warriors and 3-D (back when I could perceive it). I had my first movie date there. The Loews even sent me into puberty; I had my first effective erotic dream after seeing Louis Malle’s Atlantic City there. I missed it so when it was closed, and 2011 not only figuratively brought me back to it via Running Scared, it also marked my return to the Loews after an absence the same age as that film. While Peter Hyams’ best movie is probably beneath the Loews Jersey’s image as a repertory theater, if they ever decided to screen it, I’d be first in line and I’d pay extra. Hell, I’d even do my hair the way it looked in 1986. If the Odienator’s blond fade is not incentive enough, I don’t know what is.