The Revival House: Running Scared (1986)

Running Scared (1986)
Running Scared (1986)
Shining a light on underrated crime films. The coulda beens and shoulda beens you ought to know about.

Tonight’s Screening: Running Scared (1986)

This one will be a little different because I’m not going to pretend for a minute this is a great movie. But aren’t some of your favorite movies of all time really only the B-minus movies? The contenders who win you over with charm and effort? 

Running Scared is a child of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours. After that smash hit combo, the buddy cop film with a dash of humor was all the rage. Casting comedians as cops didn’t seem like a bad choice. And voilá –Billy Crystal as a tough homicide cop on the mean streets of Chicago. 

Crystal and Gregory Hines aren’t so much the water and oil pairing that would become the fashion the following year with Lethal Weapon, but they are the classic play-by-their-own-rules cops much like Eddie Murphy in BH Cop. And here you get two wisecracking rogues for the price of one. They play loose with the rules, but do it all in the name of nailing the bad guys. You never question who to root for here.

The story is a fairly standard busting a drug ring plot with Jimmy Smits as Gonzales, the new Mr. Big moving in to take over the drug trade. Much of the fun, aside from the wisecracks and smart quips mere seconds after the two cops have been in mortal danger, comes when the pair foils an undercover operation and are forced into a little time off. They go not to Beverly Hills, but to Key West. There, through a montage set to a Michael McDonald song (this is the ’80s after all; and yes, there is break dancing) we see the boys finally relax away from the endless Chicago winter, the guns going off and Crystal’s ex-wife always popping up with some sort of bad news better delivered in a letter.

The playboys...
The playboys…
Beyond the full scale machine-gun battles on the streets of Chicago, the most believability-straining element of the film is the depiction of Crystal and Hines as playboys who get any woman they pass on roller skates or otherwise. Tall, leggy model types right out of suntan oil ads fall right in with the pair as they parade around Key West in short shorts and cutoff clothes like they’re auditioning for an all-male remake of Flashdance. The film has a very loose attitude toward adultery, too. But, like I said, that sequence only lasts as long as an ex-Doobie Brothers song, so it’s back to the action.  

When the boys return to Chicago, they give notice. They’re moving to Key West and buying a bar. Now the challenge is to solve this last case without getting killed.

Of course the gruff captain (is there any other kind?) calls them out on their “Short timers disease. You’re getting careful aren’t you? Careful gets you killed.”

After the entire first half of the film sets up how not careful these two loose cannons are, it’s fun to see them do their best to rein it in while revealing just how much that is not in their nature. The big set piece in that regard is a wild car chase that takes them up onto the tracks of the El train in Chicago. An impressive feat of mid-’80s car chase madness, even if it’s not to the level of a French Connection style chase.

Director Peter Hyams (who also acted as his own DP) was a great practitioner of the ’80s action film including Outland, The Star Chamber, the remake of Narrow Margin, and in the ’90s, Timecop. Running Scared was written by Gary DeVore, the same guy who wrote the Schwarzenegger film Raw Deal, so yeah, that’s what you’re getting here.

I should also say I’m no fan of Billy Crystal. And yet, I like him here. He’s not trying so hard like I feel he is in other films. The whole thing has a nice breeziness to it. Everyone is having fun and they want you to also.

Gregory Hines never had a huge movie career, but he shows a real talent for smooth timing and likability here. He’s no Eddie Murphy, but it makes you wonder why he didn’t work more.

Looking back on it now, the film is dated somewhat, but the humor still shines through past the comically large portable phones, the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack, and possibly the worst fake snow in cinema history. Seriously, it looks like someone came out before each take with a can of shaving cream, gave it a few spritzes, and then went on break.

So, with your expectations sufficiently lowered, I encourage you to check out Running Scared. It’ll win you over. There are copious amounts of gun play, a thick enough plot to stay interesting, and a really winning combo of two sassy cops who always know the right zinger for every situation.


Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two GravesSplit Decision and A Mouth Full Of Blood, as well as co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short stories have appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Off The Record, Murder In The Wind, Needle Magazine, Crimefactory, The Million Writers Award: Best New Online Voices and more. For more info visit

Read all posts by Eric Beetner for Criminal Element.


  1. Thomas Pluck

    I loved this one back then, I need to see how it holds up. “No, ya dummy! the answer is Ipswich clams…”

  2. Vince

    Nice post, Eric. Hyams makes excellent use of Chicago locations in this movie. And the “unmarked car” gag is one of my all-time favorites.

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