Running On Empty (1991)

Directed by: Hoh Cheuk-Wing
Written by: Hoh Cheuk-Wing, Charcoal Tan & Bryan Chang
Producer: Raymond Lee
Starring: Lam Man Lung, Kong Wah, Ng Suet-Man, Terrence Fok, Gam Sap-Yee, Hung San-Nam & Alan Chui

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A true life story based on a robbery (and if the movie is anything to go by, quite an easy one too) of 7 million dollars from the Hang Seng Bank of Hong Kong, writers Charcoal Tan (Once Upon A Time In China 2) and Bryan Chang (Run And Kill and director of Among The Stars) joined Hong Kong Godfather director Hoh Cheuk-Wing to detail the inner workings of what drives desperate men. Problem is, most outsiders aren't very welcome to be a part of this vision as we witness both opening and ending caption in Chinese only. Then again, it's easy to pick up on the fact that the filmmakers are desperate to give the 90s its own distinct Long Arm Of The Law. With characters originating from China, director Hoh doesn't intend to go let the social commentary miss us. In fact, he lets shots of the Queen's picture open scenes so the critique-territory we're in is established early on. Now, these aren't surprising or inspired choices but they're choices to work with. Director Hoh can't conduct this harsh scenario very well though, squandering opportunities and slowly letting proceedings into a deep, deep fog.

Technically competent and providing underground atmosphere at times, Running On Empty does tend to work during some initial stages as some characters are written in a fairly fresh way due to them expressing the need to work for a living, even at a low paid construction site gig. Others refuses to be puppets and wants to steer themselves into financial security using any means possible so certainly contrasting interests is an exciting piece to utilize. But Hoh Cheuk-Wing fails to make a case that the immigrants that reacts the most desperate actually ARE. It's naive, simple spring boards into gangster movie territory and soon Running On Empty goes about its business rather casually.

With another correct choice of featuring unknown actors to maintain a reality for the tale, for director Hoh it's a choice that haunts him throughout as it instead creates a performance troupe of the bland kind, leaving us with a barely coherent or fleshed out character-gallery. Especially female support Ng Suet-Man gets a thankless task of representing future and hope, being the girlfriend left in the dark of what's going on. To its credit, the film largely treats the whole scenario with very little of an action touch, letting choreographers Poon Kin-Gwan, Benz Kong and Mak Fei-Hung provide smaller bursts of real, gritty stuff (a bar fight remains a good example, where blunt objects are forced into bodies even) but as the film continues to spiral into boredom, the high gear of bravura heroic bloodshed tries to save the day. It is bravura filmmaking and spice the film needs for the viewer to snap out of a coma but you don't want that verdict slapped on you as a filmmaker. Design-wise the film makes itself a target too. Despite being set in 1975, the movie billboards warehouse feature films such as Escape From Alcatraz and Thief, both of which were released some time after and the score goes 80s on us with its usage of guitars and drum machines. Ay, ay, ay...

Discovering that a movie has underlying themes of brotherhood and commentary towards the regime that basically doomed characters should mean an outline is there to work with. Running On Empty is merely blessed with that and any minor tangents of interest via dialogue interaction between our desperate outlaws gets smothered by a lack of skill to use these unknown faces as a journey into the reality of the tale. With its only eye opening moments being actual distinguishable gunplay all of a sudden inserted with no regard to the drama, its themes or even the movie logic of this production, Running On Empty finally feels ironically just like its English title. Riding on fumes and not fueling up enough to reach the Long Arm Of The Law-scenario at all.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.90:1 approximately. Aside from seemingly slight overmatting, a few scenes with grain and boosted contrast, the image looks generally pleasing with fairly strong colours and sharpness. The old Mei Ah screendoor effect over the image doesn't distract as much as on other titles.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track for all intents and purposes is clear sounding. A 2.0 selection for the Mandarin dub as well as 5.1 renditions for respective dialect are also selectable.

The English subtitles are occasionally weak in the grammar department but comes off as overall coherent. Traditional and simplified subtitles are also available. Mei Ah's useless Databank is the only "extra".

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson