Saturday, December 9, 2017

Stubs - Running Scared

Running Scared (1986) Starring: Gregory Hines, Billy Crystal, Jimmy Smits, Dan Hedaya, Joe Pantoliano. Directed by Peter Hyams. Screenplay by Gary DeVore, Jimmy Huston. Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman Run Time: 107 USA Color. Action, Comedy, Christmas, Buddy Cop

In 1986, MGM, once the gold standard of the major Hollywood studios, was in the midst of another sale, this time the former owner Kirk Kerkorian was buying it back from the current owner, Turner Broadcasting. The studio was starting over this time unburdened by the actual studio lot, now Sony Pictures, and that pesky library of classic films including Gone With The Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). One of the first films produced by the “new” MGM was Running Scared, a buddy cop film starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.

Hines, a dancer turned actor, and Crystal, a stand-up comedian turned actor, were paired together for the first and only time. Hines, whose first screen appearance was in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I (1981), had appeared in about a half-dozen films before Running Scared. Crystal, who had a BFA from NYU in film and television directing, had made a name for himself as a stand-up comic before his first film, Joan River’s Rabbit Test (1978) and as Jodie Dallas on Soap, a TV Series that ran from 1977 to 1981. His only other film prior to Running Scared had been a small part in This Is Spinal Tap (1984) as Morty the mime.

Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal) and Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines) are undercover
at the beginning of Running Scared.

It is winter in Chicago and Ray Hughes (Hines) and Danny Costanzo (Crystal) are two police officers known for their wisecracking demeanors and unorthodox police methods. When the film opens, they are working undercover on the city's North Side, staking out Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits), a drug dealer who has only recently gotten out of prison but is still an up and comer in the Chicago underworld. Even though they are on a stakeout, Danny gets them involved in a pickup game of basketball as a couple of uninvited and unwelcomed additions. Danny is even punched by one of the other players. But before anything else can happen, they see Gonzales drive up.

When Gonzales sees them, he flees, leaving one of his associates, Snake (Joe Pantoliano), high and dry. Ray and Danny manage to catch up to him, gaining entrance to his apartment and looking through the briefcase he’s been clutching. Inside, they find $50,000 cash. While they don’t have anything on Snake, they make it difficult on him by announcing to a group of men playing basketball next door to his apartment that he has the money. In the end, he begs them to take him in. They stop on the way to attend Danny’s Aunt’s funeral.

With their prisoner, Snake (Joe Pantoliano), in tow, Ray and Danny are almost mugged.

Immediately following the funeral, as if to emphasize the dangerous streets of Chicago, Ray and Danny, with Snake still handcuffed to them, are held up by a pair of inept thugs. Ray hands him his wallet, telling them they can take the money, but they need to keep their badges. The two assailants then run away.

At the station, Danny is confronted by a lawyer (Don Calfa) and by his ex-wife Anna (Darlanne Fluegel), whom he still loves. Ray pretends to be Danny to draw the lawyer away and give him some time alone with Anna. But the news is not what Danny expects, as she informs him that she’s getting married again, this time to a dentist. Danny’s mood is somewhat lightened when Ray tells him that the lawyer was there to let him know he was inheriting $40,000 from his recently deceased Aunt.

Snake works with Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits) to set Ray and Danny up.

They convince Snake to wear a wire to his rendezvous later that night with Gonzales. While they expect Snake to be buying drugs for Gonzales, when they approach the meeting place (a cargo ship), they discover that he’s buying a large store of Israeli Uzi submachine guns. When they hear what sounds like Snake in trouble, they walk into a trap that Snake and Gonzales have set for them.

Gonzales reveals his ambition to be the first Latino "godfather" of Chicago. Gonzales has Snake killed for bringing the detectives in the first place. It looks as though Ray and Danny will be killed before two undercover detectives in Julio’s gang, Anthony Montoya (Jon Gries) and Frank Sigliano (Steven Bauer), step in to make the arrest. In the ensuing gun battle, several of Gonzales’ gang members are killed or escape. While Montoya and Sigliano only manage to arrest a subordinate, Danny and Ray capture Gonzales.

Captain Logan (Dan Hedaya) encourages Ray and Danny to take a vacation.

Back at the station, Ray and Danny expect to be praised, but instead, their supervisor Captain Logan (Dan Hedaya) chastises them for their sloppy work (as revealed by Snake’s wire). He orders them to take a vacation and the boys are reluctant to go.

Ray and Danny find that they love Key West and plan to move there.

But down in Key West, Florida, the pair see a different side of life. A slower pace, taking time to watch sunsets, not to mention the beautiful women in bikinis with their flat stomachs and perky breasts. They begin to question their career choices and decide to retire and buy a bar using Danny’s inheritance along with their pension fund from the Chicago Police Department.

Gonzales gets away and leaves Ray and Danny pantsless.

Upon their return to Chicago, they inform Captain Logan of their intentions and also find out that Gonzales has been released and is free on bail. Incensed, they vow to capture Gonzales before retiring, but by being a little more careful in the process. They stake out Gonzales Mercedes and use yellow spray paint used to deface their unmarked police car to create a loading zone. As a result, they can get the car towed. They watch to see who will go to inform Gonzales and follow a small boy to the apartment, where Gonzales had been in bed with the boy’s mother. After subduing his crew, they chase after Gonzales, who is pantsless. He takes a hostage and demands Ray and Harry give him one of their pants. Ray is very reluctant but ends up giving up his, when Harry’s pants fall out of Gonzales’ reach. With the pants, Gonzales gets away, stealing their car in the process.

Captain Logan wants Ray and Danny to train Anthony Montoya (Jon Gries)
and Frank Sigliano (Steven Bauer) before they retire to Florida.

When they get back to the station, not only are they the butt of jokes, but Captain Logan adds insult to injury by assigning them to train their replacements, detectives Montoya and Sigliano, none other than the two undercover officers that saved them from being killed in the Gonzales bust. Logan wants the replacements to be "the best of the worst" and orders them never to let him catch them doing anything Ray and Danny teach them. Ray and Danny do their best to avoid actually working with the two detectives.

Gonzales uses a priest and a nun as drug mules.

Gonzales manages to outsmart much of the Chicago PD by staging a fake smuggling operation but bringing the coke in using other mules. While everyone else is fooled by the tactic, Ray and Danny intercept the mules, a priest and a nun, and confiscate a large amount of Gonzales’ cocaine.

In order to get it back, Gonzales kidnaps Anna and will trade her for the cocaine. He sets the location as the James R. Thompson Center, a tall glass state government building with a large open atrium. He warns that Danny comes alone. First, they have to get the cocaine out of the evidence locker, which takes Danny imitating Captain Lewis to the sergeant in charge.

The climactic scene of Running Scared takes place in the lobby of the James
R. Thompson Center. Note the large Christmas tree in the atrium.

Ray, of course, backs up his partner, taking an alternative way into the building. He discovers that all of the state troopers on duty have been taken hostage and replaced by Gonzales’ men. The only way which Ray can get in unobserved involves hoisting himself the way a window cleaner would. During the ensuing gunfight, Montoya and Sigliano, not wanting to be left out of the bust, follow Ray and Danny, but get pinned down in the crossfire. Danny and Ray ironically rescue their would-be protégés in a way similar to their own rescuing at the beginning of the film. All of Gonzales’ men are killed and after more gunfighting, so is Gonzales. Anna and Danny reconcile and he and Ray decide not to retire after all. The city needs them.

Released June 27, 1986, the film would do well at the box-office, bringing in a less than spectacular $38.5 million domestically.

The comedic approach differentiates Running Scared from these other films. Not only are Ray and Danny friends off-duty, but the actors who play them seem to have a very good screen rapport.

Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal are both quite watchable together and I would have watched them in other films had that ever materialized. Not only does Crystal have good comedic-timing, but so does Hines, which is a pleasant surprise for someone who did not come up through the stand-up ranks. These two carry the film, they have to, but they make it look like they’re having a good time while they do.

There are several elements that seem to link Running Scared to other similar-themed films during the 1980s, including Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988). For one, all three are set around Christmastime (note the Christmas Tree and fake presents in the James R. Thompson Center atrium). The holiday takes a backseat here and is never called out like it is the other two films, but it’s still part of the environment.

Something else that links the three films is the appearance by Al Leong as a henchman. Not that I mean to call out this actor in particular, but I find it interesting he is always seen in the background holding an automatic weapon in all three.

The supporting actors are rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. Dan Hedaya and Jimmy Smits are both very capable actors and could have done more with better-drawn characters. Instead, Hedaya’s Captain Logan is exactly what you’d expect of a policeman in his position. He’s tough but fair and little else. Smits’ Gonzales is a typical ruthless gangster who is no subtler than the machine gun he’s holding.

The love interests are fine. Tracy Reed plays Maryann, a woman that Ray is involved with, but superfluous to the plot. Again, not much else for her to do. Darlanne Fluegel as Anna Costanzo, Danny’s ex, is more important to the story, but she is still a bit of a cardboard character.
There are other weaknesses to the film, beginning with its really bad opening theme song. It is everything that a theme song should not be, one that is immediately forgettable. For the most part, the soundtrack music is also quite vanilla.

The film seems to have a slightly long third act and ends in what is now a cliché, though considered necessary, big gun battle finish. While the damage is not as severe as say Die Hard, which pretty much obliterated the fictitious Nakatomi Plaza, the big shootout in Running Scared is quite deadly as the corpses seem to pile up. (It is interesting that another buddy cop film, Rush Hour (1998), also ends in a similar fashion, replacing James R. Thompson Center with the LA Convention Center.) Our heroes don’t seem to be affected by the body count, which is also par for the course of this genre of films.

For the most part, I liked the film. Hines and Crystal had the makings of a really good film team. It’s too bad that this one never repeated. If you’re looking for a fun two hours and can get past the obvious 80’s trappings, then Running Scared is not a bad way to spend your time.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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