1986 in Film – Running Scared

Release Date: June 27th
Box Office: $38,500,726

People think that the whole “cast actor not known for action films in an action film” started in with Liam Neeson in Taken (2009). Those in the know can tell you that really you have to go back to Nic Cage and The Rock (1996). Of course, the properly smart people remember that Bruce Willis was a comedy actor before Die Hard (1988) and, hell, Kurt Russell was a smiling happy go lucky Disney star before he threw on an eye patch for Escape From New York (1981).

This is a roundabout way of saying that the casting of Running Scared (1986) stands out.

The film is set in Chicago with two cops trying to take down an up and coming drug lord. Things don’t go well and their boss sends them on vacation, which they enjoy so much they intend to retire. However, when they return to the Windy City they find they may still have a case to close before they can hang up their badges.

A good, straight forward action thriller story with cops and guns and that most 80s of drugs, cocaine. And, let’s be honest, a bit dull. Buddy cop films were growing in popularity ever since 48 Hours (1982) had blown up at the box office. We weren’t too far off Lethal Weapon (1987) pretty much defining the sub-genre, so a film would need to stand out against the rest.

The director, Peter Hyams, could understand this. Initially the script was about two old cops retiring but he changed it up to be young cops. He also understood that need to stand out against the glut of cop films around. So he cast Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as the leads.

This was somewhat out of left field, to put it mildly.

Crystal, at the time, was coming off the back of a successful season on Saturday Night Live that had propelled him into the mainstream. His filmography up to this point was as the lead in Joan Rivers’ directorial debut Rabbit Test (1978) which promptly vanished and a cameo in This is Spinal Tap (1982). Still, he was high profile enough to hang an action film on because, after all, it had worked for Eddie Murphy.

Gregory Hines, on the other hand, was at heart a tap dancer. He started when he was 2 and was semi-professional by 5. He appeared in nightclubs with his brother, known as The Hines Kids. When their Dad joined the group they switched names to Hine, Hines and Dad.

His first film appearance was in History of The World Part I (1981) directed by Mel Brooks. He was good enough to earn further roles in Francis Ford Copolla’s Cotton Club (1984)and White Knights (1985). Neither exactly set the world on fire but the critics were kind to him. And that latter film, despite the low box office returns, enabled him to show off his tap skills. On top of everything else, in between these films, he appeared on the stage racking up Emmy Award nominations. A multi talented man.

Both of them really, which is probably why they work so well on screen together. With a buddy cop film it’s that chemistry between the two leads that makes or breaks it and here, it’s superb. Both have a great cadence and timing to their snappy back and forth dialogue, but they bypass the smugness that can create and land squarely in charming.

A good film to compare Running Scared to would be Tango & Cash (1989). Now, initially the comparison may be a little off; the first film has two off-beat casting choices for a buddy cop movie whilst whilst the other has Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. A monster team up, even if the lustre was starting to dim especially on Stallone.

Tonally, however, the films aren’t that far apart. In Tango & Cash both leads essentially talk in quips for the entire movie. Like, the whole film. Back and forth, back and forth, quip follows quip follows quip. And they sound like quips, like lines which makes both characters seem unbearably smug.

This is essentially the same for Running Scared. Zingers and all sorts fly all around but they’re delivered in a much more naturalistic way, they feel like they’re coming from the characters which makes them likeable.

Both Crystal and Hines have great timing, not that Stallone and Russell don’t of course. The differences is probably that we’re not expecting it from the first two which helps us to enjoy it a lot more.

They are easily the strongest part of the film and the main reason to watch it. The supporting characters are just about sketched in, Jimmy Smits as the drug lord in particular.

The action sequences are pretty good, the director Peter Hyams would go on to more action films with the high point probably being Time Cop (1994) with Van Damme. The only bug bear is the car chase towards the end of the film. It’s not bad it just feels like its missing about half the coverage shots it needs; there are a lot of cuts that don’t make any spatial sense leaving you confused rather than excited.

This isn’t a deal breaker though because there are plenty of wisecracks to get you through it. And thats how you can summarise the film. Sure, its plot is a little weak and it’s full of cliches but that central paring of Hines and Crystal is good enough to turn the film into a hoot.

So it’s a bit annoying that this film seems to have been forgotten, lost in the buddy cop shuffle between Beverley Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon. Crystal and Hines wouldn’t team up again on the silver screen and would go off to their own careers. It gets forgotten which is a shame as there is plenty to love in this film and is one well worth returning to.

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