Running Scared (1986, Dir. Peter Hyams)


Wisecracking Chicago cops: Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal) and Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines) try to bust up and coming crime boss, Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits) who has graduated to gun running and cocaine smuggling since having been released from prison. Whilst they manage to arrest Gonzales, the fact that they also nearly manage to get killed results in them being forced to take a vacation. Danny’s Aunt Rose has recently died leaving him some money and he suggests to Ray that they should retire and open a bar instead. The duo agree and head back to Chicago to give in their 30 day notice, only to find Gonzales is out on bail. Can they manage to make a case against him in their remaining time and not get themselves killed in the process?

We’ve had our fist bit of snow for 2017, here where I live in Switzerland, in the last few days and as with my post at the beginning of last year about Gorky Park, it’s prompted a post about a film with a very wintery mis-en-scene. It also fulfills my promise of more posts about the films of Peter Hyams, who, despite creating a very interesting and varied body of work during the 80s and early 90s, is now largely forgotten about (due in part to some rather lackluster work in recent years) and whose best work remains vastly underrated.

As previously mentioned in my post about Narrow Margin, Hyams is one of a very select breed of director, who is also their own cinematographer. This is important because it means that the film’s “look” is much more of a result of one person’s personal vision than would normally be the case.

I’ve never personally been able to accept the “auteur” theory than so many film fans and critics willingly subscribe to about certain directors. For me, behind every “auteur” is a team of great craftsmen and women who whilst helping the director achieve his or her “vision”, inevitably impart a great deal of their own ideas and tastes (something that becomes obvious when you see that their work for other directors often contains the same traits).

Hyams is an interesting (slight) exception to this rule. All his films (including the early ones where he wasn’t his own cinematographer) have a certain “look”: the use of smoke in interior scenes to diffuse background light and limit the camera’s depth of field. His bold use of high contrast even industrial lighting (the stark red lighting when the duo burst in on Snake and Julio, the use of the actual functional lighting in the showdown at the James R Thompson Center are good examples) and yet, unlike say, Ridley Scott whose visual style is fairly set regardless of whatever genre he’s working in, Hyams’ work alters considerably depending on what the film requires. Just look at this film and Narrow Margin side-by-side: you could be fooled into thinking that they are by two different directors, because respective visual styles are so different.

Running Scared, marks the closest I’ve seen to Hyams come to embracing a semi-documentary look, since his directorial debut: Busting. From the opening establishing shots of Chicago in mid winter, featuring footage of real Chicago citizens to the montage of the guys enjoying their forced vacation in Key West, there are many moments which are meant to enhance the movie’s sense of realism. This isn’t The French Connection, however, despite the equally stand out car chase sequence — there’s no doubt in the viewers mind that they are watching fiction, which makes this a curious hybrid: a buddy cop movie, that somehow feels a little bit more realistic than those films usually are.

This feeling is also helped greatly by the casting of the two leads. Neither Billy Crystal nor Gregory Hines are anyone’s idea of an action hero. They look like regular guys — something highly unusual in 80s cop movies, the exception being Beverly Hills Cop, (which was clearly an inspiration here, particularly with the comedic elements and the song-based score, that was created by music producer Rod Temperton) This movie was also released two years before Die Hard (particularly interesting considering this movie’s finale has a lot of elements that are reminiscent of the first Die Hard) but both Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis still look a lot more like a movie studio’s idea of what a policeman should be than either of these two.

In any other movie, their replacements: Montoya and Sigliano (played by Jon Gries and an almost unrecognizable Steven Bauer) would be the heroes, and Crystal and Hines would be the second team, the sidekicks, the comedy relief. Here it’s the younger, handsomer cops that need to be rescued at the end of the film.

Interestingly, In the original draft of the script, Crystal and Hines’ characters were much older and closer to retirement. It was Hyams himself, who suggested reducing the two characters ages and who also pushed specifically for Crystal and Hines; and how fortunate that he did, because it’s resulted in one of the best double acts in police movie history.

Detective duos have used the idea of a mis-matched pair from Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings all the way through to Riggs and Murtaugh and beyond. This movie proves to be one of the few exceptions. Crystal and Hines’ Costanzo and Hughes are essentially the same personality. They seem to have been friends since before they joined the police force, in fact one gets the impression that as kids, they were street punks and petty criminals before they decided that it was more fun to play at being cops than robbers. “Play” is important here. These are not the hard-bitten, depressed cynical cops of any number of 70s cop films and tv shows. These guys like being policemen. As Ray says when the duo are contemplating retirement: “What other job is there where they let you shoot people?” The chemistry between the two leads comes across like a genuine friendship.

At the time Hines (who had already been in a number of high profile films like The Cotton Club) was a bigger name than Crystal, who had yet to have his big breakout hit with When Harry Met Sally. It’s a slight shame that, since this, Crystal has stuck to mostly romantic comedies as he’s genuinely good in this sort of role. Hines had already played a cop, alongside Albert Finney in the vastly underrated werewolf movie, Wolfen, so it’s no surprise that he’s able to play this role with ease.

They’re helped of course, by both a great supporting cast (especially Dan Hedeya as their captain, a very young Jimmy Smits (pre L.A. Law) as the villainous Julio Gonzales and most of all by the great Joe Pantoliano, (Sopranos, The Matrix, Memento) who even at this early stage in his career shows what an amazing character actor he is and steals every scene he’s in as Snake, the low-life drug dealer) and a fantastic script filled with one great one-liner after another: “In this neighborhood, a Mercedes is ‘probable cause’ “, “You are the detectives, go and ‘detect’ “, “We lost our keys, our car, our pants!”. Add to this a car chase sequence which is every bit as good as those in The French Connection and Bullet and you have to wonder why on earth this movie isn’t better known.

Do yourself a favor and acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with it as soon as possible. It deserves far more recognition and respect than it’s modest box-office and reputation would suggest.

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