Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988) is rarely mentioned in the same breath as his more well-known efforts like 12 Angry Men, Serpico, or Dog Day Afternoon...but once again, it deftly handles memorable characters faced with tough, life-changing decisions, whether they caused their own problems or not. Running on Empty's central focus is the Pope family: parents Annie and Arthur (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) are still on the run for their 1971 bombing of a napalm laboratory---which accidentally left a man blinded and paralyzed---and their children, Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry, who were essentially born into a fugitive family. They habitually move, change names, trade in cars, operate as a unit, and receive financial aid from a network of supporters...so after more than fifteen years of sleeping with one eye open, this is the Pope family's version of a normal life. But Danny in particular has grown tired of running, especially after this gifted young pianist meets the beautiful daughter of his most recent school music teacher.
Running on Empty still works almost perfectly more than 25 years later, largely due to the film's unlikely but relatable story; it manages to connect on a strong emotional level whether you're still in school or who have kids who are. These are simply terrific characters anchored by strong performances: it's not hard to get behind the Pope parents despite their despicable actions and reluctance to face the music, which makes it equally difficult and affirming to see their stubborn behavior crumble as young Danny attempts to create his own identity. There are no black-and-white struggles between good and evil here, nor are there unnecessary subplots that distract from what's really important: the story of an unusual family in unusual circumstances, and how they respond individually. Even if you dig deeper than face value, you'll be reminded of how hard any parent must struggle with relinquishing control of their children.
As compelling as the parents' perspective is, Running on Empty excels from Danny's point of view as well. His budding relationship with Lorna Phillips (played by then-girlfriend Martha Plimpton, who he met during production of 1986's The Mosquito Coast) feels genuine for obvious reasons...and in lesser hands, their scenes together might bring Running on Empty down like a ton of bricks. Instead, we're treated to a well-acted and realistic relationship between two high school students slightly beyond their years. Their first shared love is for Danny's family, who surprisingly welcomes her with open arms...and by the time he's ready to give up family life for a chance to be with her, who can really blame the guy? Lucky for him, he's got genuinely supportive and understanding parents that, despite their history of keeping things hidden, share a unique bond with the children and trust them implicitly. Running on Empty's balance between perspectives is so carefully done that it's hard to favor one or the other, giving it a wide appeal for families willing to handle a few f-bombs, tough choices, and the central focus of fugitives running from the FBI.
The film's only misstep is the presence of younger Harry (Jonas Abry), an underwritten and thankless role that offers comic relief, occasional exposition, and very little else. Other than that, Running on Empty clicks on just about every level...and with any luck, it'll continue to find new audiences that appreciate this rock-solid family drama.
Originally released on DVD by Warner Bros. all the way back in 1999, Running on Empty eventually went out of print...but nobody cared, because it was a barebones disc with a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan transfer. Since then, many fans (including myself) hoped for a proper Special Edition or even a Blu-ray; now, more than 15 years later, Warner Bros. revisits Running on Empty as part of its "Archive Collection" burn-on-demand program. The only bit of good news? We get a proper 16x9 widescreen transfer. Otherwise, this still plays like a DVD from the format's early years.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Warner Bros.' 1999 pan-and-scan DVD was rightly dismissed by collectors and casual fans alike, as it cropped the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio instead of maintaining it or, at the very least, offering an open-matte presentation. This second attempt (more than 15 years later!) still doesn't get it exactly right...but don't worry, it's just been opened up slightly to 1.78:1, following the trend of the studio's similar Archive Collection titles. There's mostly good news here: the transfer is in fine condition, colors are well-saturated and natural, and image detail even pops during outdoor scenes. But Running on Empty still looks every bit like a modestly-budgeted 1988 film, which will only be a distraction for new viewers. It's not sparkling clean and could still use a more thorough restoration---not to mention a Blu-ray option, for Pete's sake---but this is still a substantial leap in quality over the previous DVD, so I'm happy overall.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed and resized screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.
The audio is presented in its original Dolby Digital 2.0 format; again, this is very much a thin presentation (with a few notable exceptions) that reflects the era in which Running on Empty was made. Dialogue and music are clear but not especially dynamic, and a lack of low end doesn't give the soundtrack a great deal of punch. Still, it sounds exactly like a 26 year-old drama ought to, and I'd rather have flat stereo than a faux-surround "upgrade". Optional English SDH subtitles are included, but they play more like Closed Captions because THEY'RE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Yikes, not even film-themed menus? Now that
's worth a screen capture. As expected, this burn-on-demand disc is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes cover artwork similar to the 1999 DVD, aside from the top banner. Unfortunately, there are still
no bonus features on board...not even a trailer, which is really unfortunate.
It's always disappointing when great movies get buried at the box office and on home video. The critically acclaimed Running on Empty features a number of fantastic performances, great characters, and a deceptively simple story that yields complex results. It's aged incredibly well but, at the same time, feels stuck in 1988 for all the right reasons. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection DVD easily beats their own 1999 DVD, but only because it finally presents the film in widescreen; other than that, this is an unremarkable effort that either needed a promotion to Blu-ray or a fresh set of retrospective bonus features. It's still Highly Recommended, mainly due to the film's enduring strength.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.