Australian youths of the 1980s were apparently just as likely to fall prey to the same foolish distractions as those of today if John Clark’s mostly unintentionally hilarious Running on Empty (1982) is any indication. This was only ever going to be a cult film, with its undernourished treatment of hotted-up cars, schoolboy vendettas, abnormally high hair and fake Italian accents.
On the backstreets of Sydney, the dastardly Fox (Richard Moir) is ruler and king, disposing of all challengers on the illegal drag racing scene with ease. In the opening sequence we watch in horror as his latest opponent is propelled to a fiery death as the crowd scurries away. Fox’s girlfriend of sorts, and a seemingly reluctant one, Julie (Deborah Conway), soon catches the eye of another prospective racer in Mike (Terry Serio). When Mike is caught in the act driving her around and getting a bit frisky, Fox sends in his loathsome, meat-headed minions to rough him up and propose the kind of challenge that has no escape clause. He must race Fox three times with the stakes rising exponentially with any loss.
Mike is unable to avert defeat the first time around, so with the now sympathetic Julie and his mechanic Tony (Vangelis Mourikis) in tow, they head for the wilds of the outback to drum up some mug racers to thrash, thus building a bank with which to make the necessary upgrades for his car. It’s the only conceivable means of out-dueling Fox, and after running into some double-dealing rednecks who reduce his beloved transportation to a ghost of its former self he calls on the aid of Rebel (Max Cullen), an aging and blind James Dean wannabe who looks like he just stepped out of a malfunctioning time machine.
Mike returns for a second bout with Fox but the latter’s underhanded tricks lead to a disastrous outcome for Mike’s car which, beyond all repair, has to be put out to pasture. For the third and final encounter, the most drastic of measures is required to overcome Fox’s seemingly invincible Dodge. Mike now has to suck up his humility and go crawling back to Rebel to ask permission for the use of his immaculately restored Chevy to give him a chance at reaching the winner’s podium.
Though this simplistic film follows a predictable path, it has achieved some notoriety as a minor cult hit, the type of film that people with a tendency for falling head over heels for fast cars will lap up the drool-inducing associations it conjures. The recurring themes have been put through the wringer in far superior variations, of course: dethroning the arch nemesis (always an unconscionable bastard of the first order) to achieve glory and get the girl; then there’s speed as an unsubtle metaphor for breaking free from the constraints of authority.
This was Clark’s first and only film; seemingly he vanished without a trace after putting together this curiosity – a film set in Sydney and, bizarrely, funded by The Film Corporation of Western Australia. Barry Tomblin’s screenplay is mostly witless and superficial in an almost deliberately B-grade manner. Witness Fox’s admonishment of Tony prior to beating him up: “What a lot of sauce from such a little piece of spaghetti.” Tomblin too is credited with no other project in his career. Perhaps he and Clark got sucked into the same vortex whilst daring to imagine a sequel.
Luckily our hero Mike is a sympathetic firebrand, the kind of fundamentally decent guy we’ll readily root for under these circumstances. His reluctance to back peddle is endearing in the way that a dog wrestling with a bone for hours wins your respect for its sheer tenacity. Serio has charisma of a crude sort, and enough good looks to earn him a passing grade. It’s no surprise however that pop singer Conway’s career haemorrhaged soon after. Mourikis makes for a lovable offsider, suspicious accent and all, whilst Moir doesn’t even get a chance to chew up the scenery, so bare are the landscapes – both literal and metaphorical – of Tomblin’s limited imagination.
Cullen deserves special mention for his funny but excruciatingly awful portrayal of Rebel. His speech is littered with corny American sayings spouted with an accent that wavers in and out like a dodgy shortwave radio signal. And yet somehow he’s hard to hate, especially with that camel tied up in his vacant lot and a propensity for referring to everyone as “cat.” Then there’s the random appearances of Penne Hackforth-Jones and Graham “Auntie Jack” Bond as a couple of ludicrously attired, impotent police officers who look like porn actors teeing up their paper thin personas in those shakily overheated few moments before they rip off their shirts.
The final showdown between Fox and Mike is over fairly quickly, with a thoughtful, wordless pause inserted before the charcoal burning final image that – in a film supported by far sturdier framework – you couldn’t resist labeling ‘iconic’. It ends this forgotten film – cherished by an odd few – on an exultant, audacious high.