A buddy cop movie is only as good as the chemistry of its leads. Think of the classics: Murphy and Nolte. Gibson and Glover. Hanks and Hooch.

In 1986, when the genre had shorter whiskers, they had Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. Done with the double take? Yes, it’s a pretty odd duck pairing, to say the least: A Jewish stand-up artist and a tap dancer shaking down drug lords in the Windy City. Neither one of them comes off as particularly tough, despite forced Chicago swagger. But the truly crucial element of a successful buddy cop duo is comedy, something they’re both masters of.

Sadly, their chemistry is the most original thing about the film. It’s a boilerplate action flick that has little to boast about in the story department (the sole accolade you could print on the box is “From the director of Timecop”). Hines and Crystal spend most of the running time pinballing around the city and cracking wise, more like two smartasses playing hookey than truant officers on the beat. At times, that makes it feel as if the movie isn’t really going anywhere - but that freewheeling aimlessness is also the one thing that makes Running Scared really stand out. Whether their fun-loving attitude is enough to make you recommend the film, however, is another story.

Hines and Crystal play detectives Ray Hughes and Danny Costanzo, resident loose cannons and cut-ups of their Chicago precinct. They love screwing with people, from the gangsters they arrest to the rookies they’re expected to train. And when they’re not screwing with people, they’re just plain screwing. After a drug bust goes awry, they take a sabbatical in the Florida Keys, cuing one long montage of them living large, chasing tail and wearing atrocious ’80s beach fashion.

Costanzo wants to settle down, maybe even quit the police racket altogether and open a bar in the Keys. Hughes is game, but just as they seem set on leaving, drug kingpin Julio Gonzalez (Jimmy Smits) hits the streets. Gonzalez is an almost ridiculous arch-nemesis in the movie, constantly getting arrested and slipping away. He nearly pulls out his hair at one point when he sees the heroic duo on his trail.

Throughout all this, Crystal and Hines seem to be having a genuine blast. Their rapid-fire comebacks aren’t always that funny, but they play off one another like friends who have known each other so long, they’ve started to share vocal tics. For at least the first half of the film, the energy is infectious.

And even if they’re far from typical action stars, they do a good job selling some of the more frantic scenes. They get some laughs reacting with flustered bewilderment when Gonzalez orders them to toss their pants down a stairwell to him, forcing them to give chase in long underwear. But for every funny quip and scenario, there’s something excruciating, like Crystal making a prank phone call as an old woman in a gag that runs much too long.

Buddy cop movies are a dime a dozen at the video store today, and they still mostly play by the same rules. In a way, you can say that Running Scared showed them how it’s done. But more precisely, what they showed them is how to keep an audience just barely distracted while the movie dashes for the two-hour mark.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

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