Buddy Cop Case #2: Running Scared (1986)

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Guilty pleasures are for cowards.  It’s a cheap and easy way to admit to liking something that the general consensus does not without actually accepting the meager responsibility of liking it.  Deeming something a “guilty pleasure” implies that openly embracing it would result in nothing less than social exile, cursed to wander the barren wastes along with the other fans of Batman ForeverMannequin and Schwarzenegger flicks that don’t involve killer robots.  There’s absolutely no shame in liking a movie while also admitting it isn’t an artistic masterstroke worth not only preservation in the Smithsonian, but a jettison to the farthest reaches of outer space in the hopes that aliens might find it and learn that humanity is capable of true beauty.  Art is subjective. It is physically impossible to prove any given movie is empirically greater than another.  Invoking a “guilty pleasure” is to believe your taste is objectively lesser than that of whomever you’re trying to impress with your too-cool-for-film-school denial.  If you love a movie, love a movie, Rotten Tomatoes and Richard Roeper be damned.

Running Scared is often called a guilty pleasure.

And I can understand why it’s so easily dismissed as such.  The movie’s synopsis sounds like the holy text on which all buddy cop denominations are based.  Two hard-bitten, tough-talking big city cops have had it with the mean streets and decide to retire…if their last case doesn’t kill them first.

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I mean there must be a dozen buddy cop movies with playful beach scenes

If you’re good, you can name at least a dozen other genre entries that play anywhere from similar to identical.  Running Scared by no means set that standard but considering it hit at the height of the buddy cop boom, it’s perhaps the purest combination of cliches.

And that’s to say nothing of its undeniably 80s vintage.  The cars are all boxy. The obligatory informant sports a red mohawk and the nickname “Snake.”  The soundtrack features a title song and Michael McDonald.  It’s not the hip “Rubik’s Cubes-and-neon Nintendos”-version of the 80s that’s in vogue these days.  Running Scared is the kind of 80s that’s reductively labelled “dated” and deemed an unforgivable sin.

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Pictured: car phone

It’s easy to boil it down to its Family Guy cutaway gag essence -“…like that time Billy Crystal was buddy cops with the black guy from that Mel Brooks movie about the history of the world” – and leave it at that.

But let’s get one thing straight.

I love Running Scared. 

And I feel no guilt for this pleasure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We need to start with a little history.

The year is 1984, the movie is 2010.  Director Peter Hyams survives the thankless task of turning out a sequel to one of the greatest motion pictures ever made – 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Even if you (like myelf) aren’t a big fan of 2001, you can’t argue it’s earth-shattering impact on filmmaking.   And yet, Hyams managed to make 2010 a respectable, if not as profoundly poetic, follow-up.   The critics liked it well enough and audiences did, too.  Considering the expectations on the line, that’s no mean feat.

2010 1
Check out 2010. Doesn’t get enough credit.


He could’ve likely taken any number of gigs after that, but MGM wanted him to stick around and direct a script about two old cops who want to retire called Running Scared.

Hyams, also an occasional screenwriter, thought there was more to the story if the cops were younger and just wanted to retire early.  The movie, with a story credit for Gary DeVore and writing credits for DeVore and Jimmy Huston, features just that.

The other pivotal choice Hyams made early on was the casting.  He didn’t want the cops to be the kind of actors an audience would expect in an action movie.  When characters were still older, MGM wanted Gene Hackman and Paul Newman.  Even with the age change, early front runners were Tom Selleck and John Travolta.  All solid choices, all believable cops, all relatively predictable.

Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, on the other hand, aren’t.

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Pictured: believable cops

Sure, they’re both talented actors with acting-adjacent backgrounds (stand-up comedy and tap dancing, respectively), but neither had really broken out on the big screen.  Crystal was enjoying success during the dark ages of Saturday Night Live. Hines co-starred in History of the World, Part I, but had only scored smaller parts since.  Far as I can tell, they didn’t know each other beforehand, so it’s not like the filmmakers had any indication of chemistry between them.  And they just didn’t look like cops. At least not action movie cops.

And yet, they’re the magical fuel that keeps Running Scared, well, running.

From the opening scene, where Crystal and Hines get bored on stakeout and intervene in a game of basketball, these cops feel like they’ve been working together for far too long.  Hines knows Crystal’s extended family when they attend his aunt Rose’s funeral.  Crystal not only lets himself in when he knows Hines spent the night with a married woman, but brings a box of donuts for them.

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They even have the same wallets

They feel as comfortable with one another as Riggs and Murtaugh did by Lethal Weapon 3, without the advantage of two great movies to set it all up.  Though that series was founded on them being diametrically opposed – the straight-laced veteran and the reckless hot shot.  Running Scared is a bit of an odd duck among buddy cop movies because, to be honest, the characters are pretty similar.

In his review, Roger Ebert called Rush Hour a “Wunza” movie, the kind of buddy flick where “Wunza Hong Kong detective who fights fast and “Wunza” Los Angeles cop who talks faster.  A great majority of buddy cop pictures are Wunza movies.  It’s a tried-and-true recipe for conflict, drama and character growth.  By the end, the cops learn to respect each other not despite their differences but because of them and finally become the buddies the advertising promised us.

Wunza cop with no pants. Wunza slightly taller cop with no pants.

Running Scared is not a Wunza movie.  But it is perhaps the buddiest of buddy cop movies.

Crystal plays Danny Costanzo and Hines plays Ray Hughes.  Costanzo might be a bit more generous with the quips.  Hughes is quick with an exasperated look and a reminder of just how much his friend puts him through.  But they’re certainly not Jay Leno and Pat Morita.  In terms of the plot, the biggest difference is that Costanzo gets the ex-wife that he only claims he’s over.

It works, though.  Most buddy cop movies spend so much time expressing just how different the cops are, we end up wondering why they end up being friends at all.  Here, we get to spend an hour and a half hanging out with Hughes and Costanzo.  We see them argue. We see them save one another.  We even see them on vacation.  They have a comfortable, easy banter.  A lot of action-comedies shoehorn in gags just to justify its hyphen. Not so here.  The humor comes naturally between two buddies who’ve been stuck together a long time.

They’re just likable guys.  But even if you only tolerate Hughes and Costanzo, there’s a surprisingly good action movie surrounding them.

Much to their surprise, Hughes and Costanzo spot Julio Gonzales, a drug lord-wannabe they just put away, out on the streets of Chicago.  They manage to catch one of his associates, the aforementioned Snake, and use him to covertly record a meeting with Gonzales.   Things go pear-shaped pretty quick as they walk straight into a setup.  Things go even more pear-shaped when two undercover detectives reveal themselves and bullets start flying.  Against all odds, Hughes and Costanzo get out with their lives and Gonzales in custody.

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Gonzales and co.


Too bad all they get for their trouble is a forced vacation.  The captain chews them out for sloppy and plain dangerous police work, not to mention blowing a long-running undercover investigation.  So he suspends them for a month to think about their choices.

Lucky for them, Costanzo’s rich aunt died and left him enough money to live the sweet life for a while.  Maybe that’s not entirely lucky, but you catch my meaning.

Cue a sunset-soaked montage of Key West set to Michael McDonald’s effervescent “Sweet Freedom.”

In between the women and the watering holes, Hughes and Costanzo decide to get while the getting’s good and retire early to open a bar in Key West.

Life’s good for the boys.  Until they return to Chicago, where Gonzales is out on bail and out for blood.  They vow to put him away before they retire, but the captain adds one last insult to their injuries – Hughes and Costanzo have to train the undercover cops they outed as their replacements.

The rest of the movie is spent desperately trying to outfox Gonzales, ditch the trainees and stay alive long enough to go out as heroes.

It’s a fun inversion of the usual buddy cop formula.  They’re not too old for this shit and that’s exactly the point – why wait until they are?

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Told you you knew Dan Hedaya

Like Crystal and Hines, the rest of the cast is excellent, and a wonderful collection of “That Guy”s.  Jimmy Smits, likely best known as Princess Leia’s adoptive father, is almost unnaturally young here, but in top form as Gonzales.  He’s dangerous, he’s desperate and he’s unpredictable.  His lackey, Snake, is played by Joe Pantoliano (Cypher from The Matrix) with a brash-but-sniveling enthusiasm.  The always delightful Dan Hedaya (just look him up; you know this man) gets his shot at the 80s character actor grail – the frustrated police captain – and proves it was a role he was born to play.  The undercover cops are played by Tony Montana’s best friend from Scarface (Steven Bauer) and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries).  Even the police mechanic is a familiar face, Larry Hankin, who you probably know as the threatening Kramer from the show-within-a-show on Seinfeld.

Uncle Rico
Yes. That Uncle Rico.

Unfortunately, Darlanne Fluegel and Tracy Reed, the only actresses in the movie with much to do, are given short shrift.  Fluegel, who impressed the year before in To Live and Die in L.A., plays Costanzo’s ex-wife.  She shows up to tell the boys that she’s getting married to a dentist.  We never see this man, but he becomes a source of cheap, bitter shots from Costanzo.  Fluegel doesn’t get to do much besides accidentally tease her ex-husband with her emotional uncertainty and play damsel in the finale.  Reed is the married woman Hughes sees in between shootouts.  That’s about all the development she gets.  It’s a noticeable slight in an otherwise well rounded set of characters.

The casting was probably a safeguard for Hyams, who’d never handled much comedy before.  Both Crystal and Hines were at the top of their game, after all.  But what Hyams did know how to handle was action, and this movie delivers more of it than you’d expect.

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It’s a pretty pretty picture

Cargo ship shootouts. White-knuckle car chases on the L train. Mexican stand-offs without pants. Running Scared brings surprising heat.  Crystal and Hines sell themselves as tattered Chicago cops and Hyams sells them as damn good ones.  Like on most of his features, Hyams also served as the Director of Photography.  While that has come to be something of a jab against him (his lighting on horror flicks The Relic and End of Days is so dark that it’s often impossible to tell what you’re looking at), here he shoots everything in rich anamorphic widescreen and puts all the danger front-and-center.  There’s a stunt late in the movie involving two locked elevators some twenty stories high.  Someone has to jump between them and Hyams frames it for maximum dizzying effect.

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Pictured: maximum dizzying effect

Everything is shot with rich colors, smoky contrast and confident composition.  It’s simply a well photographed action movie in the 80s mold.

Something a little less subtle that places the picture as a product of it’s time is the soundtrack.  Masterminded by the sadly undersung music genius Rod Temperton (the man wrote “Thriller,” after all), this thing cooks.  From the groaning synth of Fee Waybill’s “Running Scared,” you should have a pretty good notion of whether or not you’ll enjoy the music.  The infectious dance tunes from the likes of Kim Wilde and New Edition keep the mood light and the pace pumping. At least commercially speaking, the standout track is Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom,” which charted as a single at the time. Unless you have a disdain for the sound of mainstream 80s rock, it’s hard to have a bad time with this soundtrack.    I, for one, love it and for disclosure’s sake I should note that the CD is in my car radio as I write this.

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I just love the look of this movie.

Running Scared was successful enough to warrant talk of a sequel, tentatively titled Still Running.  Nothing ever came of it, but for a good, surprising reason – Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines never felt the scripts were up to par with the original.  Now, as I said, Running Scared will never be on any lists as one of the best screenplays ever put to paper, but they clearly recognized there was something special about it.

And I have to agree.  There’s a magic to Running Scared.  It might be solely on the shoulders of its dynamic duo, but I think that’s not giving the rest of the picture enough credit.  The cast is clearly having a ball.  The action is better than it has any right to be.  The slight tweaks to the buddy cop formula keep it inventive.  The soundtrack is rad in the purest definition of the word.  The movie’s a guilt-free pleasure that ends on a freeze-frame and catchy pop song.

What more could you want in a buddy cop movie?

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If you said “Billy Crystal abs,” then I have good news

Maybe the next case will give us an answer.  Another 80s picture. Another set of wildly mismatched actors.  Another winner.  Well, almost:

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