The Movie (4.5/5)
Sidney Lumet is possibly one of the greatest American filmmakers ever to step behind the camera. A man with over 50 directorial credits to his name, including classics such as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, he was one of the few prolific old style Hollywood directors to survive the end of the studio system. He embraced change as it washed over Hollywood, developing a reputation as the, “actor’s director,” rather than a director who stuck to his guns with a distinct visual style or technique. His focus on honing realistic performances rather than style allowed him to fit into any decade with any cast, resulting in films such as 1988’s Running on Empty. Released by Warner Bros., the film manages to infuse an 80s teenage coming of age drama effortlessly with political intrigue and engaging family drama under Lumet’s watchful eye.
Running on Empty is the story of the Pope family, who have been on the run from agents of the FBI and law since the 1970s, following a bombing of a napalm factory by Arthur and Annie Pope during the Vietnam War era. Their constant movement and changing of identities has made life difficult for their two children, especially the elder son Danny, who yearns for a more traditional way of life. Together, they struggle to keep things together as the parents of this family struggle to reconcile the needs of their children and the activism that’s driven them through life, and their children struggle to figure out what it means to live a normal life; to fall in love, make friends, and feel comfortable chasing their own desires and dreams.
Running on Empty seems to be running on everything but empty, kicking things off with a sequence in which the Pope family dashes away from their most recent life. Arthur, the head of the family, played by the always stubborn and curmudgeonly Judd Hirsch, is seen calling into a few secret sources using coded messages and suddenly they’re a new family again. It’s a sequence that moves fast, and explains little in the world of the film beyond news broadcasts. It leaves a lot of speculation up to the audience, only some of which is explained throughout the course of the movie. It’s a respectful move by Academy Award nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner to not bog down the film with blatant exposition. It gives us brief glimpses from this point forward into the fractured lives that Arthur and Annie, played with a subdued sense of gusto by Christine Lahti, have had to leave. Who they left behind, what kind of relationships they’ve built, and so on and such forth.
The rest of the film deals primarily with their elder son Danny, played by River Phoenix, who earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for a performance that I can only describe as layered in hormone driven frustration. Bounced between schools and towns like a ping pong ball, his character has spent his entire life attempting to say disconnected from teachers and kids his own age. Recognizing his talent at the piano however, his new music teacher at the local high school attempts to push through the barrier he’s put up, and ends up pushing Danny straight into the arms of his daughter, Lorna, played by a very young Martha Plimpton. It’s with this story segment that Lumet and his creative team get to flex their muscles, coercing authentic performances out of these two young leads, and using Danny as a vehicle to explain just how destructive the lifestyle his parents have led to the well-being of their kids. At the same time, they get to cash in on the lovely locales in which the film was shot, and try their hand at creating that special kind of young love that only the 80s seemed to nail time and time again: spoiler alert, they’re pretty successful.
As far as 80s family dramas go, Running on Empty has one of the more outlandish premises, but ends up being one of the more endearing products of the era. Being confronted with the reality of the choices the Popes have made and the impacts it had on their children leads to some truly heartwarming moments, and as the film wrapped up I felt myself getting all worked up. Over the course of its nearly 2 hour run time, I was not only heavily invested in these characters, but I cared about their outcome. That, my friends, is rare, and a testament to Lumet’s ability to coerce effective performances from his actors. Come for the River Phoenix and 80s teen drama, stay for the Lumet direction. Good stuff.
The Video (5/5)
Running on Empty was shot on 4-perf 35mm film with spherical lenses, and was framed for a 1.85:1 flat aspect ratio when shown in theaters. Sourced from a new HD master created by the Warner Archive team, the film has been presented in 1080p resolution and has been slightly opened up to a 1.78:1 aspect ratio for this release.
As far as visual styles go, Running on Empty shoots for a realistic style. That means a lot of greens, browns, and the occasional red or yellow to add some life to the picture. There’s no particular emphasis on any specific color; its one of those art imitates life kind of pictures. To complement the cinematography of the film is a lovely, light layer of film grain to give it that organic touch. Underneath that grain is an image that is sharp, and detailed even in mid and wide shots, characteristic of the flat lenses used to shoot the movie. Overall, this is a rock solid 1080p presentation from the Archive team.
The Audio (4/5)
Running on Empty was originally released to theaters with a mono optical soundtrack on 35mm prints. This experience has been recreated here with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack.
Like most mono tracks from the Warner Archive vault, this track is clean as a whistle and well mixed for a mono track. Dialogue is well mixed into the sound effects and music used throughout the film. Standard fare.
Special Features/Packaging (2/5)
Running on Empty has been released by Warner Archive to home video in the standard Blu-ray keepcase. The front artwork features a black and white family photograph of the Pope family with a “Wanted by the FBI” tag in the corner taped to a cracked concrete wall. The title is imposed on the wall in the bottom right corner in red. The back features a shot of Phoenix’s character at the piano with two character shots below, next to a review quote and two paragraphs. Below that is theatrical credits for the release, and technical specs. A pretty average package job for the Warner Archive team.
The only extra included in this release is the theatrical trailer, as seen in theaters before the film’s release in the late 1980s. I guess it’s to be expected for a film such as this.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Region Coding: None
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono (English)
Runtime: 116 minutes
In contrast with the Warner Archive’s last 80s release, Vision Quest, which kind of an awkward and forced romance set against a more normal background, Lumet’s Running on Empty takes an extreme situation and uses it to grow one of the most comfortable, effective romances out of the 80s teen drama genre. It’s an indication that Lumet and his team had true command of the craft, and could make anything feel grounded and engaging through strong performances and construction. Warner Archive has done the film a huge favor by releasing it to Blu-ray with a fantastic new 1080p presentation, decent mono audio, and relatively okay packaging. The lack of extras is disappointing, but otherwise this release comes RECOMMENDED.