Joey Gazelle, a low-ranking mafioso working alongside New Jersey mobster Tommy Perello, is present when a large drug deal with a Jamaican gang goes awry. A trio of corrupt cops led by Rydell storm in to rob the criminals, but his two police accomplices are killed in the ensuing shootout. Tommy tells Joey to get rid of the incriminating guns, but Joey goes home to his wife Teresa and their twelve-year-old son Nicky. Nicky and his friend from next door, Oleg, secretly watch as Joey stashes the guns in the basement.
Oleg steals one of the guns before heading home that to his mother Mila and abusive stepfather Anzor, the nephew of Russian mob boss Ivan. When Anzor becomes belligerent, Oleg shoots him. Joey, attracted by the gunshot, finds Anzor lightly wounded and Oleg gone. When Anzor describes the gun, Joey realizes it is one of the weapons traceable to the earlier killings.
Running through the night, Oleg runs into a homeless man, then a drug dealer, and finally an abusive pimp named Lester and his prostitute, Divina. After Oleg helps Divina, she decides to look after the boy. She takes him to a diner, where they run into Joey and Nicky. Joey is there to explain to Frankie Perello, the Italian mob boss, that Oleg has the gun, but (falsely) states that it was not fired during the shootout. Nicky and Oleg stash the gun in the diner bathroom just before the police arrive and return Oleg to Anzor.
Oleg soon escapes from Anzor, then is taken in by a kindly married couple, Dez and Edele, and their two young children. When Oleg becomes suspicious of them, he sneaks Edele's cell phone and secretly calls Teresa. Teresa arrives, threatens her way inside the apartment, but finds no sign of Oleg. She threatens Dez, who leads her to a closet, where Oleg is tied up with a plastic bag over his head. Teresa saves him, then holds the couple at gunpoint and tells Oleg to get the other kids and leave. When Teresa finds children's costumes, plastic body bags and snuff films, she calls the police from Edele's cell phone, reports gunshots, hangs up, and then murders them both.
Throughout all of this, Joey has been searching for Oleg and the missing gun, and is finally about to get it back. However, just before he can, both he and Oleg are caught by Tommy and Sal, another of Frankie's thugs. They take Joey and Oleg to a remote landfill, where Tommy threatens Joey at gunpoint, but suddenly kills Sal instead. Tommy then reveals that he had just learned that Sal was an informant helping Rydell. At the same time, Rydell is killed by a bomb Tommy had planted.
Tommy then takes Joey and Oleg to an Ice Hockey Rink to meet Frankie and rival mob boss Ivan. Ivan has brought Anzor, to try and get Oleg to tell them the source of the gun he used to shoot Anzor. When Ivan slaps the boy, Joey lashes out at Ivan, and he in turn is subdued and beaten by Ivan's thugs. When Anzor refuses Ivan's order to kill Oleg, Ivan kills Anzor. When Ivan turns to kill Oleg, Joey distracts him by accusing Frankie of planning to kill the Russians because Anzor was cooking meth to sell in Frankie's territory. A shootout ensues between the Russians and Italians, with one thug killing Tommy while Frankie personally kills Ivan. Frankie turns to shoot Joey – who suddenly reveals he is actually an undercover FBI agent, showing a hidden wire under his shirt. Oleg then distracts Frankie, enabling Joey to disarm and kill him. Joey and Oleg then exit just as the FBI and local police storm the building.
Joey and Oleg then stop at a diner for breakfast. As they are leaving, Lester emerges, holding the gun that Oleg had hidden earlier. In the ensuing struggle, Lester shoots Joey in the stomach, but not before Joey fatally stabs Lester with a switchblade. Joey and Oleg struggle to return to Teresa and Nicky. Meanwhile Mila, thinking Oleg is dead, commits suicide by blowing herself up Anzor's meth lab. Just as Teresa and Nicky rush outside to investigate, they see Joey crash his car after losing consciousness.
Days later, Teresa, Nicky, and Oleg attend Joey's funeral; Oleg has been adopted into the family. They drive out to a small farm house, where Joey emerges, having faked his death for his protection from those exposed by his work as an undercover officer.
- Paul Walker as Joey Gazelle
- Cameron Bright as Oleg Yugorsky
- Vera Farmiga as Teresa Gazelle
- Chazz Palminteri as Detective Rydell
- Karel Roden as Anzor Yugorsky
- Johnny Messner as Tommy "Tombs" Perello
- Ivana Miličević as Mila Yugorsky
- Alex Neuberger as Nicky Gazelle
- Michael Cudlitz as Sal "Gummy Bear" Franzone
- Bruce Altman as Dez Hansel
- Elizabeth Mitchell as Edele Hansel
- Arthur J. Nascarella as Frankie Perello
- John Noble as Ivan Yugorsky
- Idalis DeLeon as Divina
- David Warshofsky as Lester the Pimp
- Jim Tooey as Tony
- Thomas Rosales, Jr. as Julio
- Glenn Wrage as Special Agent in Charge
Running Scared opened with $3,381,974 on 1,611 screens (for a $2,099 per theater average). It went on to make a total of $9.4 million worldwide, failing to bring back its modest budget of only $15 million.
The film received mixed reviews from film critics. It currently holds a 41% approval rating on film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, where the general consensus states: "This film runs with frenetic energy punctuated by gratuitous violence but sorely lacks in plot, character development and stylistic flair." The film holds an average of 41 out of 100, based on 30 reviews, on film review site Metacritic.
Justin Chang of Variety described Whitaker's cinematography, which primarily used Steadicam and crane shots, as "[dazzling] with a desaturated palette that nevertheless has a rich, grimy luster." He also noted the film had an odd plot, which was disarming given it was shot in Prague rather than somewhere that looks closer to New Jersey. Sam Wigley of Sight and Sound said the vicious gangland depicted in the film resembles an "iniquitous fairytale realm," although it is dark, and "passes in a vertiginous blur of comic-book hyper-reality."