Robin’s Underrated Gems: Running Scared (1986)

When you think of the most famous cop-buddy teams in cinema history, names that come to mind are probably Nick Nolte & Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS., Mel Gibson & Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon or Jackie Chan & Chris Tucker in Rush Hour. However, two names that most people probably even think of are the team of Billy Crystal & Gregory Hines. However, if I were to rank every cop-buddy team by their genuine chemistry, I would definitely put those two right near the top of the list. The unlikely duo of Crystal and Hines originally teamed together in an underrated 1986 cop action-comedy called Running Scared (not to be confused with the 2006 Paul Walker film of the same name). It was made during a time period when seemingly every other film coming out of Hollywood was a cop-buddy action-comedy and this effort does not seem to be as well-remembered as the likes of 48 HRS., Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon. I will be the first to admit that there isn’t one original idea to be found in Running Scared and that it contains every possible cop movie cliché you can imagine. But it also contains the three elements that every cop-buddy film needs to rise above its material: genuine wit, good action scenes and terrific chemistry between its two stars. In comparison, when Kevin Smith’s horribly disappointing Cop Out came out this past year, it had none of those three things to help combat its tired material and, as a result, the whole thing fell incredibly flat. Running Scared may be pure formula, but it follows its formula really well and winds up being a lot of fun.

This plot summary is probably going to make Running Scared sound as stale as week-old bread, so please bear with me. The movie takes place in Chicago and the heroes are two wisecracking, but very dedicated cops named Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines) and Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal). They are hot on the trail of the city’s drug kingpin Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits) and after almost getting themselves killed while busting him, Ray and Danny take a brief vacation to Key West, Florida. They come to the decision that they want to retire from being cops and move down there permanently to open a bar. When they return to Chicago, they give their 30-day notice, but find out that Gonzales is on the loose again. They vow to catch Gonzales, but are ultra-paranoid about getting themselves killed before they retire. They are also ordered to take two hot-shot rookies (Steven Bauer, Jon Gries) along with them and train them to take their place after they leave. The veterans and the rookies don’t like each other at first, but eventually form a bond of mutual respect. And, yes, they also have a grumpy police captain (played by one of my favourite “That Guys”, Dan Hedaya) who yells at them a lot. There’s also a very half-assed subplot about Danny wanting to get back together with his ex-wife (Darlanne Fleugel) and it’s obvious the only reason she’s in the movie in the first place is so that she can be put in danger near the end (for another prime example of this, see Nighthawks). Any of this sound familiar? Yes, Running Scared does go through every possible cliché on the cop movie checklist. Yet as tired as the overall storyline sounds, there are a lot of individual scenes that have a freshness and vibrant energy to them. One example would be this sequence, where Ray and Danny steal Gonzales’ Mercedes and drive around town with it, in hopes of pissing him off and luring him out. You know this car must belong to a wealthy eighties drug dealer because he’s got a big-ass CAR PHONE!

There are so many hilarious and genuinely clever sequences like this sprinkled throughout Running Scared. The movie gets off to a great start when Ray and Danny corner a suspect in a bad neighbourhood named Snake (Joe Pantoliano), who happens to have a briefcase with $50,000 in it. Since they want to arrest him, but have nothing to charge him with, Danny decides to yell out to some shady-looking characters nearby:

“This block is being designated a Neighborhood Watch Area. There’s a guy up here named Snake. He’s wearing garage-sale clothes and the top of his head looks like a parakeet. He also has FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS in small bills in a briefcase. As his neighbours, it is your responsibility to make sure there are no suspicious characters or evil perpetrators lurking in the area who would seek to do him harm. Again, FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS in small bills, tax-free, in a briefcase right in this apartment. Which has a really cheeseball lock! You can bust your way in there, bop him on the head, take the money, nobody would know! So it’s UP TO YOU. Thanks a lot, have a good day.”

After that, Snake is begging the cops to take him into custody, so he punches Ray in the face to get himself arrested. Another hilarious standout scene in the film involves Ray and Danny chasing Gonzales out of his apartment while he’s in his underwear, so Gonzales takes a hostage and forces the cops to throw him their pants (“We lost the suspect, our keys, our car, OUR PANTS!”). In spite of their unoriginal storyline, the dialogue by screenwriters Gary Devore and Jimmy Huston is consistently sharp and witty and there are a lot of great comic situations. Of course, the material is heavily enhanced by the delightful pairing of Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. Even though this is a cop-buddy film, this isn’t actually a story about two mismatched partners being forced to work together. Ray and Danny are established as long-time partners who’ve clearly been best friends for most of their lives and just have a wonderful camaraderie with one another. Hines and Crystal are obviously not the first two actors you’d ever visualize playing cops or action heroes, but they have terrific chemistry together and the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well enough without them. However, even though Running Scared spends a lot of time focusing on the comedic aspects of its storyline, that doesn’t mean that it skimps on the action. The movie delivers one of the more underrated chase scenes of all time as Ray and Danny pursue Gonzales’ limo while in a cop car disguised as a taxi (with a priest and nun as passengers!) and wind up taking the chase onto the Chicago “L” train tracks!

The movie’s climactic action sequence is also very impressive, a mammoth shootout that takes place in the State of Illinois Building with Ray firing off his machine gun while dangling from the ceiling on a window washer’s rig. The director here is Peter Hyams, whom I have previously praised in my “Underrated Gems” columns for Capricorn One and 2010. Hyams is one of those solid, no-frills filmmakers who will never be considered one of the greatest directors of all time, but he’s had a very steady career and knows how to do his job and put together a very entertaining package. In Running Staged, he delivers some very good action scenes, shows that he has a great sense of comic timing, and given the witty dialogue that he often writes in his own screenplays, it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a hand in the dialogue for this film as well. In the end, Hyams was definitely the ideal choice for a project like this: an entertaining, unpretentious director who could deliver an entertaining, unpretentious film. And that’s exactly what Running Scared is. This isn’t the greatest or most widely recognized cop-buddy movie film ever made, but it is very a good and underrated one that delivers exactly what its audience wants and even goes the extra mile to be a lot more witty and clever than it has to be. I can be rough on formulaic movies that are a non-stop string of clichés, but I have no problem praising formulaic movies that embrace their clichés and still find ways to make them entertaining. And, yes, when listing off my all-time favourite cop-buddy combos, I have no qualms about mentioning the most unusual duo of Crystal and Hines. In tribute, I shall close things off by showcasing them in a cheesy eighties montage set to Michael McDonald’s equally cheesy song, “Sweet Freedom”.

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