11 Best Acting-While-Running Performances in Movie History
Some athletic folks describe a feeling of exhilaration while running. A runner’s high. I’ve never had it. I prefer the sidelines — or better yet, the sofa, where I can toke up on a contact high from watching the likes of Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise run themselves into stupors. Picture those days on set: these guys don’t just need to act, they don’t just need to run — they must do both. And they must do it over and over and over again.
High quality run-acting doesn’t get a lot of official recognition. There is no Academy Award — nor even a Golden Globe. The best I can offer from my static spot in the living room is a flattering list. It goes as follows:
Tom Hanks in ‘Forrest Gump'
I almost didn’t include ‘Forrest Gump.’ Watching the purported feel-gooder, for me, is like eating that entire box of Mama’s chocolates: I think I’m enjoying the sweetness, until I realize I actually feel bloated and gross.
But then I watched the seven-minute Run Across America sequence, a montage set to a soundtrack of your parents’ favorite trek-themed tracks: Jackson Browne’s 'Running on Empty,' The Doobie Brothers’ 'It Keeps You Runnin’,' and Fleetwood Mac’s 'Go Your Own Way.' Man, do those tunes get non-threatening folks in the mood for a light jog. A throng of newscasters try to keep up with Forrest as he crosses the Mississippi for the fourth time — surely there must be a political motive behind all this running? But Forrest is befuddled, and shoots a weirded-out side-eye as he says-slash-shrugs, “I just felt like running!”
Keanu Reeves in 'Point Break'
When you think of ‘Point Break’, what do you see projected onto the wall of your brain? Surfing? Obviously. Skydiving? Absolutely. Robbing banks in Ex-President masks? No doubt. But Keanu Reeves’ three and a half minute foot pursuit of Reagan-masked Patrick Swayze is just as badass a spectacle, and a fine example of Keanu’s acting prowess, which I will defend to the hilt as long as I walk this Keanu-blessed earth.
True, Keanu’s performance doesn’t suggest much in the way of concealed tsuris; what’s impressive here is his stamina. He jets across a busy L.A. street (checking first for oncoming traffic), zigs through narrow alleys, zags over a fallen pedestrian, shoves some other bystander to the ground for no real reason, scales a retaining wall, busts through a glass door, and survives both an irate housewife wielding a vacuum hose and a medium-sized dog hurled in his face. He’s unstoppable — until he torques his knee tumbling into an aqueduct. It’s brutal to watch. When Keanu feels pain, I feel pain.
Cary Grant in 'North by Northwest'
Cary Grant was 55 years old when he ran for his life from a crop duster aimed to kill, making him one spry, confused grandpa. (Biggest grandpa tell? Pants belted up just below the nipples. Classic grandpa.) There is zero dialogue in these tense moments of Man versus Machine, but Grant’s chiseled, sexy grandpa face is plenty competent in conveying the astonished fear within, experiencing The Four Stages of Competence in one single scene:
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence, as Grant squints in the prairie sun, cocks his head, and watches the crop duster barrel his way, baffled.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence, as Grant turns to run at the very last second like a bewildered gazelle who knows it’s hunted but hasn’t the foggiest idea why.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence, as Grant’s light bulb moments sends him on a mad dash into the dry cornfield.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence, as Grant grapevine-trots away from a gas explosion with a furrowed brow that begs for closed-captioning: “What in the bloody hell...”
John Travolta in ‘Grease’
Fellas, how often have you found yourself wanting to impress a girl and show her you’ve cleaned up your rough-and-tumble act? What better way than to join the track team and jump hurdles!
John Travolta sports a matching heather grey sweat suit as he jogs at an easy pace. But once he spots Olivia Newton-John and her jock(strap) boy toy, he picks up speed, shooting not one, not two, but four “is she watching?” backward glances before his foot catches in a hurdle and he wipes out flat on his love-hungry belly. But, hey: it worked. Talk about falling for a girl! Hey-o!
The Cast of ‘Stand By Me’
The “oh shit” fear is palpable, and not just because Jerry O’Connell screams, “Oh, SHIT.” All four kids completely immerse themselves in specific motivations as they sprint fast as their little legs can carry them across a bridge and away from a chugging train, committing wholly to actorly choices that would surely make Stanislavski proud. O’Connell doubles down on fear; Corey Feldman digs into battle-worthy determination; Wil Wheaton is real pissed with O’Connell for being such a sack of useless potatoes; and River Phoenix is legitimately on the verge of tears as he scrambles across, limbs flailing, and even once he’s safe on the sidelines, hollering, “Run! Run, man— Move your ass, man!” And then at that critical moment when it’s uncertain his friends will make it in time, Phoenix’s lips twitch and tremble because there are no words to convey an unimaginable atrocity like the senseless murder of your friends by train. Luckily, none of our heroes die. On screen.
Now I’m sad.
Billy Crystal in ‘When Harry Met Sally’
Billy Crystal bolting through empty New York streets on New Year’s Eve like lightning is, for me, the most iconic visual in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ Not Meg Ryan’s Oh Moment over pastrami, and not their stroll through Central Park in autumnal splendor. Nope, it’s Crystal gunning it in his white sneakers and nylon bomber jacket, wide-eyed and clench-jawed, desperate to reveal his true feelings because, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible” — and ASAP, of course, equals Run, Billy, Run.
George Clooney in ‘The Descendants’
Sometimes you run to your greatest love, and sometimes you run to get answers because your greatest love slept with a greasy real estate agent.
George Clooney’s frozen look of freaked out determination is eerily similar to Billy Crystal’s ready-to-commit Harry as he too hoofs it for love, arms pumping, eyes frantic, mouth halfway open. But there’s pain in these eyes, pain that can only mean, “So wait: my wife’s in a coma, AND she cheated on me?” Poor Georgie’s mouth is as hollow as his wife’s marital vows.
But wait! There’s levity! Because Clooney’s chosen to run in loafers, footwear sensible for easy Hawaiian living, but ill-advised for rounding a wide, down-sloped curve. Ah, there is no funnier sound than the thwap-thwap-thwap of rubber soles slapping asphalt, so mahalo to Clooney for turning a pretty depressing moment into an I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-but-I-am chuckle-fest.
Laura Dern in ‘Jurassic Park’
Various portals of the internet have labeled Laura Dern’s grunty self-pep-talk to “RUN” as bad acting. But they’re wrong. Dead wrong! I’d like to see those cyber-knuckleheads motivate themselves to hobble across an open field after a whole weekend’s worth of raptor terror. Plus, she recently discovered Samuel L. Jackson’s severed arm. And fell off a fence! I’m unclear when exactly Dern hurts her ankle/leg/foot (the fence?), but injury is sort of par for the course when it comes to a theme park island’s dinosaur cloning experiment turned disaster situation. I don’t blame Dern for clenching her teeth. Muscle on, [clever] girl.
Tom Cruise in ‘Collateral’
It’s an undeniable, scientific fact that Tom Cruise is the greatest runner of all time. (Sorry professional Olympic competitors. You’ve transformed your bodies into stringy meat museums for nothing.) There are so many prime running scenes to choose from within the complete Cruise oeuvre, but ‘Collateral’ wins the gold medal for Most Un-Cruise Performance.
Cruise is reliably super-speedy, but his running in action movies typically slips into, well, cruise control. It’s fast, it’s focused, it’s fast — and we’re rooting for him. But in ‘Collateral,’ he’s the bad guy. Bad Guy running is a whole ‘nother running game: it’s frenzied, charged with a desperation that reveals hitherto concealed insanity, and scary. Cruise seems to steel more strength here by flaring his nostrils. I’m not sure if he’s sucking in precious oxygen to propel himself faster, or exhaling fumes of pure evil — but who cares? He’s a silver-haired supersonic nightmare in a well-tailored suit.
Bill Murray in ‘Rushmore’
The scene is short — sixteen seconds short. Bill Murray hands Olivia Williams a note from Jason Schwartzman, walks slowly away, steals one glance back... And scampers off pell-mell. Blink and you miss it, but it’s an important moment, albeit one occurring entirely in the background. The idea that a grown man would run like that after delivering a love letter to a grown woman is delightful in its Wes Anderson whimsy, but more pertinently, it encapsulates Murray’s character in a nutshell. He’s a child. A child who runs with his arms swinging by his waist.
Chris Farley in ‘Tommy Boy’
He runs smack into a wood fence. He runs through a tall bush. He nearly runs into a dude in a denim jacket. He slows down to amble casually past two pretty girls, and then runs some more. He needs to stop for a moment to hold his knees and catch his breath, but he must go on. He will go on. His limbs thrash in a way that seems counterintuitive to producing speed, but it — and sheer willpower — flings him forward. Chris Farley running isn’t funny because he’s a big guy attempting physical activity — Chris Farley running is hysterical because every so often he screws up his face in that way where you know he’s two seconds closer to, “Sonofa—!” Plus, this is the most relatable running scenario. Running sucks. Running late to class sucks. Chris Farley: Runner of the People.
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