Running Scared (1986)

running scared

“Pointing a gun at a police officer, can we waste them for that?”

The Scoop: 1986, R, Directed by Peter Hyams and starring Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines, and Jimmy Smits

Tagline: Two of Chicago’s Finest?

Summary Capsule: Two of the wildest, toughest cops in Chicago have to bust a would-be drug kingpin and their own mortality while dealing with modern audience’s disbelief that Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines could play tough, wild cops.

Kyle’s rating: One of the most inexplicably underrated films of all-time

Kyle’s review: I poke fun at it above in the short Summary Capsule description, but it is undeniably true that Running Scared will garner quite a few raised eyebrows over the idea that Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines could ever believably play not only cops, but cops of a tough & wild sort.  Isn’t the late great Hines best known as that tapdancing guy in that tapdancing movie? Isn’t Billy Crystal an old comedian with amusing hair who is best when he’s singing songs about Oscar-nominated films?

Cop movies can feature a set of partners where one partner at least seems ill-suited for the job (Hooch in Turner and Hooch, James Belushi in Red Heat, Mandy Pantinkin in Alien Nation, etc.) but the other partner should then be of the Schwarzenegger or Gibson variety. You need contrast, you need friction, you need a mismatch for most of the runtime followed by a perfect fusion to overcome other insurmountable obstacles. As well, you need at least one and preferably more really, really explosions.

Running Scared doesn’t exactly break the cop-buddies film mold, but it sure does ignore the subsequent rules and expectations when it wants to. As a result, it’s a action comedy that’s more cerebral than the genre usually allows, and it’s a film of the 1980s that isn’t quite as aged as you might expect. Certainly, the car phones are amusingly large, the villain’s pimped-out ride has a tape deck, and the police precinct is prehistoric even by budget-crunched Chicago standards. But a straight and fairly original take on police drama allows Running Scared to stand as a fairly unique film experience, so even the most jaded and modern-focused viewer should find at least amusement if not outright enjoyment if they seek it out.

Just as the Lethal Weapon films function in part as a travelogue of Los Angeles, Running Scared plays unabashedly as a love letter to the city of Chicago. My mother was a born-and-raised southside Chicagoan and I spent a significant portion of my childhood living there as well, so when mom introduced me to Running Scared at a young age (I believe while we were living in Chicago, so I would have been around 7 or so) I enjoyed it all the more for recognizing in it so many of the sights and places I saw on a daily basis in real life. As I grew up I still admired how organically it made the unique texture of Chicago practically a supporting character (reminiscent of Woody Allen’s perpetual cinematic dalliances with New York City), but more and more I appreciated just how much freedom Crystal and Hines were given to instill their characters with wit and intelligence. Usually, especially in this ‘cop-buddies’ police genre, the leads are allowed just enough character to make them believably heroic and broadly memorable. To say that Officers Ray Hughes (Hines) and Danny Costanzo (Crystal) are heroic and memorable would be an incredible understatement.

From the beginning, we are with Ray and Danny as they survey a pick-up basketball game on a typically-freezing Chicago morning. And from this start, as one little random encounter leads them to uncover a burgeoning criminal enterprise that threatens to engulf most of Chicago’s drug-trafficking, we gradually yet effortlessly absorb that Ray and Danny are neither ordinary cops nor run-of-the-mill action heroes. Let me assuage your primary concern now: both Hines and Crystal are young and in excellent shape, so there is never any doubt that these two can kick an ass, let alone a whole lot of asses if necessary. Furthermore, almost immediately both partners show how on-the-job instincts and their own natural intelligence allows them to succeed in the cold wasteland that is their Chicago beat.

Running Scared is a film that covers a lot of ground and while it never seems rushed, it does expect to think at least as well as its heroes. Story twists and logical deductions that would make up 75% of a similar film’s plot are arrived at and analyzed in mere minutes; while our heroes make plenty of wisecracks and fulfill more than the minimum of ‘tough guy lines,’ we are aware that these are two thoughtful people who at good at their job not only for their tenacity and wildness, but because they are always thinking. How rare it is to have movie leads, let alone action movie leads, who solve problems and reach logical conclusions not only before the audience does but without expository characters thrown in for script convenience?

As other critics ranging from Roger Ebert to random Amazon users will attest, there isn’t too much that’s original about the basic story in Running Scared. Two wisecracking cops notice and try to stop the ascension of a would-be drug lord, said drug lord takes their involvement personally and takes aim first at the partners and then at anyone they love, and while things seem dire near the end our heroes manage to triumph with only bad guys actually getting killed. Pretty standard action genre stuff.

The spark here, as mentioned, is with the characters. You won’t have time to notice the standard plot tropes because you’ll be too busy laughing as Ray and Danny wax philosophically between chase scenes and shootouts. You’ll expect the next scene, or perhaps the one after, to be the one where the job momentarily gets too claustrophobic for at least one of the cops so that their partnerships is temporarily tense and strained before the call for final battle heals all wounds, but that sort of scene never comes. Ray and Danny are partners through and through, one bringing in donuts the morning after the other takes a girl home from the bar, going on (forced) vacation together even though they spend most of their waking moments together on the job, and never getting more than amusedly annoyed at one another. Theirs is a partnership that is rare in movies, even amongst romantic couples, where the mutual love and respect is obvious and what they can accomplish together automatically takes precedence over single showboating.

Ultimately, I do have to admit my extreme affection for Running Scared is fueled by a love for intelligent bantering and sincere camaraderie, as well as fondness for Crystal and Hines in comedic roles. A cop movie that’s comedic in a cerebral way, and violent in fairly low-key and anticlimactic ways, isn’t quite what most viewers expect or prefer from the genre. But if  you can focus on dynamic storytelling and a standard plot buoyed by surprisingly thoughtful yet believable characters, I think you just might find a hidden ’80s gem you may have flipped past on cable without a thought and soon will never miss a showing of again.

Speaks for itself, really


  • In several outdoor scenes meant to be set in a deep Chicago winter, snow is simulated with foam.
  • When the partners return from Florida, Ray is wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers hat. At the time of the film, Tampa Bay and the Chicago Bears were division rivals so it was a pretty, pretty big deal for him to being wearing that hat.
  • Director Peter Hyams stated that initially the script focused on two old New York City cops who want to retire. Hyams suggested the focus instead should be on two young Chicago cops who don’t retire, which became the eventual basis for the film.
  • That original script was written for Gene Hackman and Paul Newman before the decision was made to cast the characters with much younger actors.

Groovy Quotes

Danny: Let’s bust ’em.
Ray: For what?
Danny: In this neighborhood, a Mercedes is probable cause.

Danny: I’m gonna call for backup.
Ray: Backup?
Danny: Everyone else does!

Danny: Thanks to us, there’s probably twelve guys with machines guns in there.
Ray: You’re right. We better both go.

Danny: (speaking to a room of armed criminals, one of whom has a gun on Ray) You’re all under arrest.
Criminal: No hablo ingles.
Danny: Oh. Hablo Smith & Wesson? (slowly points gun in guy’s face, pressing it practically up his nose) You have the right to remain dead. Anything you do will be used against you. You have the right to a coroner. If you cannot afford one, we will appoint a medical examiner for you.

Captain Logan: I hear you two watched ’em mop up the pancake today.
Danny: Hi, Captain.
Captain Logan: You two weren’t, uh, interrogating a suspect up on the roof, were you?
Ray: We got an alibi, Captain. Snake, tell him where we were or we’ll kill you, too.

Danny: I can’t believe that you missed all six shots.
Ray: What are you talking about? I hit the windshield six times in a row.
Danny: I’m the one who made him swerve.
Ray: Oh, you made him swerve? You always aim low anyway.
Danny: Oh that’s really good, let’s do height jokes, Ray.

Captain Logan: Let me tell you something, when you’ve been cops this long you are not fit for anything else.
Ray: We’re looking for some new career challenges.
Danny: Yeah. Something with a future.
Captain Logan: Show me another career where they let you shoot people.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
  • Lethal Weapon

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