experience with Running Scared went something like this: first came skepticism. The film opens with a heavily stylized six minute gun battle, and while I thought there were some cool shots and excellent kills, it seemed pretty standard. Next came disbelief. I couldn’t believe that the things I was seeing on screen were happening in a studio release in 2006. Finally came glee. I found myself grinning from ear to ear and applauding wildly as the film kept climbing to new violent, gaudy heights.

Running Scared doesn’t go over the top – it refuses to even acknowledge that there is a top. It often doesn’t even feel like a movie, but like a delirious fever dream you have on your couch when your temperature is about 104 and you’re watching a crime movie marathon. Running Scared is gritty, but that word gives the impression of reality, something the movie has incredibly little time for – it needs to get straight to the insanity.

Paul Walker plays Joey Gazelle, a New Jersey mobster whose main function is disposing of guns used in murders. The six minute shoot out at the beginning is a drug deal gone very wrong when a group of crooked cops busts in and tries to steal the cash. Joey is given the pearl handled gun of the don’s son, but before he can get rid of it the kid next door – Joey’s son’s best friend – steals it and uses it to shoot his abusive Russian mobster dad.

The kid takes off, and Joey has to find him before the police or the mob do – he’s a dead man if he doesn’t get that gun. Meanwhile, the kid disappears into an urban hell, meeting oddball pimps and shaggy crack addicts and familial pedophiles. Every step takes him deeper into a swirling inferno of depravity, an odyssey into the lowest levels of society.

Director Wayne Kramer launches these elements out of a cannon, creating a movie so propulsive you’ll rarely have a moment to think about how bizarre things get. The world of Running Scared is like if Tarantino had directed The Warriors – stylized and self-aware, pulpy and edging on cartoonish. Honestly if Joey, in his pursuit of that gun, had turned a corner and run into a pinstriped, bat-wielding gang in make up I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

The film keeps winding up the intensity and the surreality until it fairly explodes. Kramer’s no ham-handed director, though. He knows how to keep things moving and he knows when to stop the film’s forward momentum just long enough to really creep us out, like when he introduces the perfect soccer mom and dad child molesters and murderers. It’s a scene that’s going to drive a lot of people out of the theater – not because it’s graphic but because it’s menacing and tense and truly skin-crawling. You know that no Hollywood movie would ever subject a kid to the terrors that are hinted at, but then you look back at everything else that has happened in this mad movie and wonder if maybe Kramer isn’t going to rub your face in some kiddie snuff. And how can you not love a movie that keeps you guessing like that?

One of the things I really enjoyed about Running Scared is that, for most of the film’s running time, its main characters are despicable scumbags. It’s a truly post-Sopranos film for a while, and Kramer doesn’t resort to making any of the leads, especially Joey, all that likable. The amorality is fresh, and exciting, and it adds unpredictability. Surprisingly, Paul Walker is fantastic as Joey Gazelle, the hard as nails mobster who is willing to light a man on fire to get information out of him, and who maybe would kill that kid with the gun if he had to. At first I wasn’t sure that the role was right for him – the early scenes, where Joey’s home life (a wife, who he fellates on the washing machine in a wonderfully gratuitous moment, a son, and an elderly father whose mental faculties have long since disappeared and has to be changed and fed) is examined, Walker seems adrift in the wrong film. But once the action kicks in he seems confident, mean and entertainingly aggressive. This movie is going to change a lot of opinions about Walker.

He’s surrounded by a first rate cast – Vera Farmiga sizzles as his believably sexy wife, who gets pushed far beyond her boundaries in the film’s one night time span. Karel Roden is the abusive father next door with a John Wayne fixation; Cameron Bright (from the Nicole Kidman film Birth, and who is having a great 2006 with Thank You For Smoking, X3 and Ultraviolet) may be the MVP as the gun-toting kid. Gondorian steward Denethor, John Noble, shows up late to be a hilarious Russian mob boss while Johnny Messner and TV staple Michael Cudlitz are fantastic as Italian mobsters who are always one step behind Joey. Chazz Palminteri adds a greasy sheen to the whole thing as the world’s most crooked cop, who meets a completely awesome end.

By the time Running Scared climaxes in a torture session at a black-lit hockey rink, complete with fully garbed hockey players shooting pucks at our hero’s face, the film has declared itself a piece of bloody brilliance. It’s too bad that it deflates after that – a revelation took some of the wind out of the film’s sails, and then it hits a reef of multiple endings. It’s not a perfect movie, but when it’s working it works amazingly well. Running Scared is the kind of movie you might be pulling out to watch regularly ten years from now – the only thing that keeps the film from being a sure-thing cult classic is that the dialogue isn’t as memorable as the audacious visuals and violence.

Running Scared is that rarest treat – a hard R action film that doesn’t insult your intelligence. Under the film’s main plot runs a fun fairy tale structure, which helps make the ending a little more palatable – it’s a function of the form, after all. Too often I hear people defend unimaginative, boring tripe because it’s “fun” or is a “popcorn” movie. Running Scared sodomizes the limp corpses of these films, reminding gonzo film lovers how much fun it can be to sit in a theater and see how far a movie is willing to go.

8.8 out of 10