Plot: What’s it about?
Recently I have been enjoying some of the backlog of titles released by Warner Bros’ Archive Collection. A couple weeks ago I watched Sidney Lumet’s underrated mystery-comedy Deathtrap and really enjoyed it. I was pleased to see that another of his films Running on Empty would be released by Warner Archive. I had never seen the film, but given the director attached to the film and the star of the film, River Phoenix, I was curious.
River Phoenix plays Danny Pope, a seventeen-year-old boy forced to flee from the FBI due to the actions of his parents, Arthur and Annie (Judd Hirsch and Catherine Lahti.) Danny’s parents had tried to protest the use of napalm in the Vietnam War by blowing up a napalm research facility at a university while Danny was two years old. When a man was inadvertently injured in the blast they evaded authorities with the aid of an underground of political activists. Danny has grown up constantly changing towns and identities and helping his parents to raise his little brother Harry. This has been costly to Danny who has dreams of becoming a musician and attending Juilliard, but is hamstrung by his commitment to his family. When Danny and his family arrive i\at a new town, Danny begins to display some of his musical talent to a teacher there named Mr. Philips (Ed Crowley.) Deeply impressed he begins to take an interest in Danny and so does his daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton.) As Lorna and Danny grow closer, Danny realizes that he may need to choose between his dreams and his family.
Running on Empty is overall a pretty solid drama. It is not perfect, but the story is interesting enough to not lose interest of the audience. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award that year, and so was River Phoenix’s performance. To be fair, River Phoenix’s performance is what elevates the movie and makes it enjoyable. While not poorly written, it does border on melodrama. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character or Lorna played by Martha Plimpton. Plimpton is by no means bad in the film, but when she is in her most emotional scenes with River Phoenix she is just completely outgunned. Phoenix lights up the screen and his death in real life makes the viewer wonder what could have been. The other solid performance in the film is by Judd Hirsch. For an actor that is best known for television work, Judd is a very adept dramatic actor and plays the role very well in the film.
Sidney Lumet did a capable job of directing the film in his very naturalistic approach that he had taken in other films. I cannot say that I absolutely loved the film (bordering on melodramatic, a scene where the family sings James Taylor – twice, Martha Plimpton’s unconvincing crying), but I enjoyed it enough to recommend a rental to see River Phoenix shine.
Video: How’s it look?
Warner did a great job on the transfer of the film using an MPEG 4 AVC codec of a brand new 2K restoration. The cinematography is very well served by the Blu-Ray format, allowing much more detail than would have been possible before. The film mainly works very dull hues that fit the time of filming, but I really enjoy the warm look of the picture. Fans of the film will be glad to see the excellent care given to the material. This movie is not exactly going to explode off the screen, but the uptick visually from the Blu-Ray treatment helps allow more nuance to enter the film.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Warner has provided a very capable DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that sounds very good. This is not the most immersive surround track that you will ever hear, but it gets the job done. The dialogue is crisp and clear and I did not notice much hiss. Directionality is somewhat limited, but like other Warner releases fidelity is very strong to the original elements.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Theatrical Trailer
The Bottom Line
Running on Empty is an engaging drama with a standout performance by River Phoenix. This movie has certain melodramatic problems that keep it from reaching the heights that it should, but it kept me entertained and wanting to see how the story would play out. Fans of the film will be glad to see the delicate care Warner have given the film. For those unfamiliar with the film, I would recommend a rental over a blind purchase.
Editorial Note: of note – this film is PG-13 but had to petition for that rating. There are ten F-words in the film! I thought that was interesting.