Look in the sky. It’s a plane. It’s a bird. It’s a frog. No it’s just little old Underdog or as his young master so aptly calls him “Superman with a flea collar.” In Disney’s live-action version of the 1960s animated superhero parody the canine crimebuster (voiced by Jason Lee) returns to nip at the heels of arch nemesis Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage). Unlike the cartoon Underdog who took on human characteristics this pooch keeps all four paws on the ground Except of course when he’s zooming off to save the day. And it’s all thanks to the mad scientist Barsinister that Shoeshine—Underdog’s secret identity—runs as fast as a cheetah and flies like an eagle. Shoeshine turns into the Mutt of Steel after coming into contact with a serum created by Barsinister. His transformation from zero to superhero leaves Barsinister desperate to replicate the results of this lab accident for typically evil purposes. Assuming that is he can get his hands on Shoeshine who’s already found refuge in the Capitol City home of an ex-cop (Jim Belushi) and his son Jack (Alex Neuberger). With Jack’s help Shoeshine finds his true calling as man’s best super-powered friend. Oh and when he’s not thwarting jewelry heists he’s trying to win the heart of his very own Lois Lane “Sweet” Polly Purebred (voiced by Amy Adams). But Underdog must set aside his feelings for the King Charles spaniel when Barsinister and his dimwitted henchman Cad (Patrick Warburton) attempt to extort $1 billion from Capitol City. Let the dogfight begin! How wise of Disney not to unleash a computer-generated Underdog à la Garfield or Scooby-Doo. In or out of his formfitting superhero costume Leo the Lemon Beagle deserves a big juicy bone for his energy and resourcefulness. It certainly helps that director Frederik Du Chau knows how to work with animals having previously directed Racing Stripes. Beware though: Leo’s so darn cute that your kids will beg you for a Beagle for Christmas. Jason Lee who crosses over to the side of good after voicing The Incredibles’ malevolence Syndrome makes Underdog as humble and affable as his TV alter ego Earl Hickey from My Name is Earl. Still there are times that Lee’s so laidback with his narration you’ll swear you’re watching an episode of My Name is Underdog. Amy Adams delightfully kooky in Junebug makes for a surprisingly bland Polly. Brad Garrett though makes sure the bullying Rottweiler Riff Raff’s booming bark is worse than his bite. As for the humans K-9’s Jim Belushi is once again upstaged by a canine costar and Alex Neuberger does nothing to suggest he’s got what it takes to be the next tween heartthrob. Disheveled and disfigured Peter Dinklage is suitably hammy as the maniacal man of science. A bleach-blonde Patrick Warburton continues to exploit his Seinfeld fame by playing yet another Puddy-like himbo even though this act lost its novelty many dog years ago. Superheroed out? Then it’s certainly not enough for director Frederik Du Chau to make us believe a dog can fly. That said this Underdog is more for pups than parents. If your child’s never seen an episode of Underdog they’ll certainly get a kick out of the obvious efforts to spoof Superman from our hero’s phone-booth costume changes to his struggle to retain his secret identity. Du Chau doesn’t show much imagination when it comes to chronicling Underdog’s pursuit of truth justice and the American Kennel Club’s Way but at least he gives the predictable proceedings some oomph. He also keeps the poop jokes to a bare minimum and avoids making the kind of sexual innuendos that ruined The Cat in the Hat ensuring this four-legged superhero offers nothing but good clean fun for kids who have grown tired of Ratatouille. Parents though may find themselves wishing they were watching Spider-Man 3 again. Underdog makes no effort to appeal to anyone who isn’t suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Sure those weaned on the cartoon should come away mightily impressed with Underdog’s efforts to stay as true to its source material as possible. But there are only so many times you want to hear Underdog rhyme while he fights all who rob and plunder. Kids though will certainly walk out of the theater singing the beefed-up theme song and rooting for Underdog to save another day.
Running Scared is a few plots shy of being well-thought out. It starts with Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) a low-level employee of an Italian mob family who over the course of 18 hours has one hell of a time. First he has to get rid of a gun that killed a crooked cop in a drug deal gone bad. Instead of disposing of it however Joey goes home and hides it in a panel in the basement as future collateral only to have his 10 year-old son’s best friend Oleg (Cameron Bright) discover and abscond with the weapon so he can shoot his abusive Russian stepfather (Karel Rodan) who is also mob connected. Then we get to follow young Oleg now on the run as he encounters all manner of nocturnal miscreants. I mean seriously this is the kind of night that should permanently screw the kid up. Meanwhile Joey--aided by both his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga) and son--is trying desperately to get to the boy and the gun before the mob factions find out. Not one of your more stellar evenings. What is cutie-pie Paul Walker doing shooting people having sex on a dryer and saying the f-word over and over after he just saved a pack of Huskies from freezing to death in the Antarctic? Kind of bad timing for Walker to have his feel-good family movie Eight Below released a week before this R-rated bloodbath. Running Scared definitely shows an edgier Walker but the outdoorsy movies just work better for him. The young Bright on the other hand has made a short career of playing creepy sullen kids. First he disturbed us out as a cloned child in Godsend; then he made us really uncomfortable as a kid who claims he’s Nicole Kidman’s reincarnated husband in Birth. So playing a boy who goes through one of the more nightmarish evenings ever isn’t really a stretch. As a side note Farmiga (The Manchurian Candidate) does a nice job as Joey’s wife who has just as much chutzpah as any of those testosterone-pumped mob guys. This is how writer/director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) describes Running Scared “It’s like a Grimm’s Fairy tale nightmare but taking place in the Mob world…” Well no kidding. Kramer uses familiar gritty crime drama techniques such as framing the film in that grainy washed out look and doing slo-mos of people getting plastered by shotguns. You know the drill. It’s effective but the problem is while Kramer bombards the audience with one Grimm situation after another--from pedophiles to crazed pimps to ear-biting gangsters--he forgets to create a cohesive film. Of course the director nearly redeems himself with a clever twist near the end but it’s just not enough to make up for the many times you’re sitting there cringing and thinking “What the…?”