Once in a while, I'll sit in the dark of a movie theater rapt with awe. Did that 10-year-old boy just call John Wayne a slur worse than pansy? Did he just shoot his Russian stepfather in the shoulder? Well, yeah, but only after the druggy stepfather walloped the boy's ex-prostitute mom.
The wonders never cease in ''Running Scared," a depressing piece of gun-crazy Hollywood scuzz that, with its gassy style and runaway immorality, makes a Tony Scott movie look like a Robert Bresson picture.
The 10-year-old here is a dour hockey enthusiast named Oleg (Cameron Bright), and the snub-nose revolver he just fired belongs to medium-time New Jersey hoods. They include Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker), who spends the movie chasing the boy for the gun, which Oleg got while playing in Joey's basement with his son Nicky (Alex Neuberger).
Normally, if you've seen one grimy, over-cranked movie that appears to have been shot, edited, directed, and acted on a copious supply of Red Bull, you've seen them all. What ensues in ''Running Scared" almost needs to be seen to be believed.
Oleg and Nicky get mixed up in a world of grisly doings and nonstop expletives. That could have been dark fun but writer-director Wayne Kramer (''The Cooler") manages to douse their adventure in woeful clichés, the most needless of which is Chazz Palminteri in another oily detective role.
For one 15-minute stretch, though, ''Running Scared" breaks character and turns morally inspired when one of Oleg's countless excursions takes him to the home of a cheery couple (Elizabeth Mitchell and Bruce Altman) who perpetrate terrible acts on kids. Desperate, the boy calls Joey's wife (Vera Farmiga), who comes to the rescue with an electrifying, all-too-momentary diversion from the jingoism, misogyny, racism, and homophobia on display.
Farmiga gets our adrenaline going and walks off with the picture, playing the one character with a moral compass and a scintilla of righteous common sense. Plus she seems like the only person in the movie who could be from New Jersey.
Walker's part is a Mark Wahlberg special, but he doesn't have Walhberg's seductive thuggishness. After ''Into the Deep" and ''Eight Below," the actor seemed to be hitting his stride as a mellowed dreamboat. Here he goes psychopathic and leans hard on the F-word as though that were the only way he could justify his measly Garden State accent.
The two younger actors are sorely inexpressive. I beat up on ''City of God" for giving its baby gangstas a glamorous amount of power, and for letting the amateurs who played them eat their roles up. But the two kids in ''Running Scared" walk into lurid scene after lurid scene emotionally detached from it all, as if the nastiness will roll off them because they've refused to engage it. They seem catatonic instead.
''Running Scared" might have been able to get away with the relentless sadism the boys witness were the movie as good as the John Woo and Quentin Tarantino films from which Kramer is cribbing. Instead, it's often just witless and foul. It might be actionable, too. If I were Kramer I'd watch my back for a lawsuit from Rockstar Games for what feels like an unauthorized and relocated adaptation of ''Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.