While I may not be able to recall every single feature I have ever seen in a moviehouse (and, believe me, there have been many), Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty has always managed to stand out in my mind for some reason, despite the fact that I really don’t remember much of the movie itself. And yet, at the same time, I found myself saying “Oh yeah, this happens” an awful lot upon my recent second viewing of the film, nearly 30 years after seeing it on the big screen in ’88. I suppose the film must have left a large impression upon my impressionable, recently-turned 12-year-old mind than anyone could have foreseen ‒ although as to why my mother took a 12-year-old to see the movie in the first place is anyone’s guess.
Owing more to a thing called reality (which many folks are having difficulty grasping these days no matter how old they may be) than naught, Lumet’s Oscar-nominated film stars Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch as Annie and Arthur Pope, a middle-aged couple who have the unenviable task of raising two male children on their hands. And, thanks to their younger days spent as anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War, they have something else on their hands: blood. 15 years earlier, the Popes set off a bomb in a napalm factory, in what was supposed to be a “peaceful” demonstration of protest. Alas, a janitor who wasn’t even supposed to be there (thank you, Dante Hicks), nevertheless was, and none of their lives have been the same since.
As Running on Empty opens, we see present day Pope Family settling into another new identity in a small, seemingly insignificant town somewhere ‒ a routine the family has been doing regularly for the last decade-and-a-half to evade arrest from the FBI. Needless to say, much like some of the homes of several childhood friends I had who hailed from the wrong side of the tracks as a youngling, it’s not a very healthy environment for a kid to grow up in. Let alone two. For their youngest son, ten-year-old Harry (Jonas Abry), it’s almost like a game. But for 17-year-old Danny (as played by some kid named River Phoenix, the recipient of the aforementioned Oscar nom, by the way ‒ and rightfully so at that), it has become somewhat hellish.
One day, the usually quiet Danny breaks his silence in his new music class, astonishing his teacher with a still topical remark about Beethoven (a line that has remained ingrained in my membrain ever since I first heard it). Said instructor, Mr. Phillips (Lumet regular Ed Crowley, who appeared in Family Business for the same filmmaker the following year before disappearing from the industry altogether), also learns of Danny’s incredible skills at ticklin’ the ol’ ivories ‒ which he has been perfecting since his youngest days on the lam despite not actually owning a working keyboard or piano. (Considering I was a would-be pianist when I saw the movie, I can only assume that was the reason I remembered the movie so well years later.)
As the Feds start to move in on the on-the-move family, tensions within the ever-changing home begin to rise. The one thing Arthur and Annie never stopped to consider what sort of an impact a life on the run would have on a child, and now that Danny is discovering who he is (in as fine of a “sins of the family” parable as can be), it is time to reconsider their unit as a whole. Heiress to the John Carradine legacy Martha Plimpton (in a rare role where she doesn’t come from an impoverished household) gives us a grand supporting performances as the daughter of Phoenix’s music teacher, with whom the young piano prodigy kicks off his first romance with (in reality, the pairing was an actual couple, having met two years before on The Mosquito Coast).
One of the final theatrical productions from Lorimar Productions (the first in a distribution partnership the company had with Warner Bros.), Running on Empty arrives on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection courtesy an all-new 2K scan. Like many of their other recent releases, the WAC went straight to the original camera negative for a fresh master positive here, and the result is nothing short of breathtaking ‒ even if director Lumet and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s color palette is (appropriately) bleak from the Popes’ point of view. Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the gorgeous 1080p AVC-encoded transfer is a stark contrast compared to Warner’s first-generation DVD release from 1999, which ran out of gas long ago.
Running on Empty‘s original mono soundtrack receives a new DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono makeover here, and is a thing of beauty all to itself (especially when there’s a piano playin’ or credit composer Tony Mottola’s infrequent score kicks in). Removable English (SDH) subtitles are included with this WAC BD, which includes a newly-remastered (in 1080p) theatrical trailer as its one and only extra. But then, you really don’t need any special features to remember Running on Empty. It’s an exceptionally well-made character piece with an excellent cast (Mr. Phoenix, we still miss such great actors such as yourself) which deserves to be seen at least once. After all, any drama that captures a 12-year-old’s interests can’t be all that bad.
Plus, there’s nary a Jackson Browne song to be heard in the entire film (although you will hear some Roy Orbison, James Taylor, and Madonna).