There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The fortieth entry into this unbroken backlog is Peter Hyams’ low-key Chicago action classic, Running Scared…
Peter Hyams is one of cinema’s great, fundamentally sound workmen, jumping genres and applying a near anonymous attention to craft that unified his filmography. Were one to watch Capricorn One (’77), The Star Chamber (’83), and The Presido (’88) all in a row, without anyone informing them they’re helmed by the same filmmaker, they’d probably be unable to tell until scanning the end credits. This is certainly an attribute to be celebrated – the ego-free commitment to bringing a solid, pulpy story to the screen, sans any sort of ostentatious visual calling card. Solidifying his reputation as a master craftsman, Hyams even went as far as to shoot many of his own pictures, wearing multiple hats behind the scenes in order to make sure the job was done right.
Running Scared (’86) is the natural extension of Hyams’ first feature, Busting (’74), an irreverent buddy cop movie starring Elliott Gould and Robert Blake as two hard nosed detectives. Only, where that picture was playing in a distinct '70s sandbox, pairing those character actors together and letting them craft a set of unlikely badasses, Running Scared belongs to the same era that delivered interracial shoot ‘em ups such as Lethal Weapon (’87), predating that iconic action entry by almost a full year. What marks Hyams’ movie as special is that it attempts to remold comedian Billy Crystal’s wise guy stand up routine into a smart aleck Chicago cop, fed up with the system and uncaring about suspects’ rights. His partner? Gregory Hines – the smooth dancer who wasn’t a stranger to genre movies after co-starring with Albert Finney in the primal NYC freak out, Wolfen (’81). Together, the showmen comprise a shaggy duo of minor do-gooders, looking to survive the Windy City and retire together at a beachside bar.
Naturally, there’s some unfinished business to take care of before Danny (Crystal) and Ray (Hines) head to Key West. Namely: recently released drug kingpin Julio Gonzalez (Jimmy Smits), who’s smuggling dope through customs using missionaries as decoys. While training their cocky replacements (Steven Bauer and Jon Gries), our slightly slimy flatfeet get involved in numerous sloppy gunfights and smash ‘em up car chases. This being a mid-level action movie from the mid-'80s, Hyams stages these modest set pieces with impressively practical aplomb. The director had a knack for exploiting his environments (just see the show-stopping foot chase through an open market in Busting for the best example), and Running Scared features one chaotically cramped shoot out in a shithole apartment, immediately followed by a taxi chase atop the Chicago L-Train. Hyams is again manning the lens himself, making us feel a palpable sense of danger the same way William Friedkin did with The French Connection (’71).
Running Scared’s true treat is how loose it plays. Hyams lets Crystal and Hines create a buddy comedy just as much as they’re oddly believable as dogged cops. It’s because of the bond that forms between the two that we buy into them being pretty good policeman (even if they fuck up and cause their Capitan [Dan Hedaya] quite a bit of stomach pain). These dudes share a legitimate love, and it’s a joy to watch Crystal and Hines bounce off one another, as Running Scared even takes time out for a first act transition that sees them gallivanting about their new sun-drenched digs, wearing crop tops and coming off like a sweet old gay couple (if they weren’t constantly trying to pick up babes, that is). For all the thrilling action that dominates the second half of Hyams’ movie, it’s the comedy that commits us to these somewhat reprehensible cops (let’s face it, being the '80s, this movie totally endorses torturing a suspect with a tattoo needle). Sure, Crystal slips into shtick on one or two occasions – including an extended “Jewish grandma” prank phone call scene which is funny, but kind of misplaced – but Hyams (along with screenwriters Gary DeVore and Jimmy Huston) is smart to focus on rapport, instead of letting the comedian’s larger than life personality take over.
In a way, Running Scared may be the ultimate example of what made Peter Hyams such a fun talent, who’s never really gotten his critical due. It’s a modestly made movie, full of smoky tableaus, chilly Chi-Town location shooting, and stellar character actor casting (not to mention the totally crush-worthy inclusion of Darlanne Fluegel as Danny’s caring ex-wife). Running Scared was never going to be an “instant classic” like any Shane Black’s defining entries, nor does it rejigger the genre in any significant way. Instead, Hyams focuses on delivering a couple of working class characters that could be your next-door neighbor, only they’re slightly more proficient with a .38 Special. By the time Hines is scaling the glassy side of the John R. Thompson building during the climactic shootout with Gonzalez’s thugs, you’re on the edge of your seat, because you genuinely want to see these dudes get to Florida and retire in peace. With Danny and Ray, Hyams discovers the perfect surrogates – working class dudes who do their jobs the best they can, and just want to relax at the end of a long day with a few cold beers on the bar. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Running Scared is currently available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Kino Lorber.