Add one part ‘Duel’, one part North by Northwest, and one part The Vanishing (the original Dutch version, not the terrible remake). Mix it up until all these ingredients are combined. Then sprinkle with a likeable, square jawed, every man hero. Bake for 95 minutes. Voilà. ‘Breakdown’ à la carte.
Breakdown (1997) Directed by: Jonathan Mostow, Written by: Jonathan Mostow & Sam Montgomery, Starring: Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan, J.T. Walsh, M.C. Gainey, Jack Noseworthy Original Music by: Basil Poledouris, Cinematography: Douglas Milsome
Written by: Droid
The success of ‘Breakdown’ lies in it’s simplicity. Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan), are driving across the country to make a new start in San Diego. When their new car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Amy accepts a ride from trucker “Red” Barr (JT Walsh) who will drive her to the next truck stop so she can call for help. Jeff, who has stayed with the car, manages to get it started. Unable to find his wife at the truck stop, Jeff tracks down the trucker, who says he’s never seen him before. That’s the set up, and the rest of the film deals with Jeff trying to figure out where his wife is.
Kurt Russell, who is the central figure in every scene, puts in a mostly terrific performance as the man who finds himself in an impossible situation. In the middle of nowhere, caught up in plot he doesn’t understand, trying to catch up as quickly as possible so he can save his wife. He’s particularly good in the early scenes where he’s in total confusion about what has happened and can’t get any answers. There is only one scene where he overplays things. During the scene where Jeff must go into a bank to withdraw his money, Russell plays the character as far too nervous and on edge, full of tics, with sweat pouring from brow. While the bank manager does notice his odd behaviour, nothing is made of it. Jeff simply walks out after emptying his account. But that one scene aside, Russell does a great job as the character transitions between concerned, confused, scared and ultimately, resourceful and determined.
I have no idea what JT Walsh was like in real life, but as an actor he became the master of the sneering, hateful (usually government affiliated) villain. I can’t actually recall a role where he was anything but. Walsh makes Red a cold, calculating sociopath. Basically the guys a massive prick. There’s also great support from Quinlan, MC Gainey (who gets interrogated in a style that would make Jack Bauer envious) and Jack Noseworthy.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow, who also co-wrote with Sam Montgomery, ‘Breakdown’ is a bit of a throwback. It’s an incredibly simple, economic story, quickly set up (the wife goes missing about 10 minutes in). Mostow makes great use of the barren landscape, repeatedly accentuating Jeff’s total isolation with long shots of him on lonely highways that extend out to the horizon. I might have liked a little more uncertainty about whether or not Amy has simply left him (although the efficiency of the film might have been compromised), as there is simply no doubt that she has been kidnapped.
The film ends (as all films seem to do these days) with a big action scene, where Jeff and Amy try to flee from Red and his crew. It’s a terrific scene, with wonderful practical stunts and it’s excitingly executed. You can see that this scene was almost a training run for the massive car/truck chase in Terminator 3. I do think the final coup de grâce is a bit much though. With just one or two shots removed it would have changed the final “kill” from our heroes having an active involvement to it simply being an understandable result of the situation. The action from one of our heroes lends the film a slightly nasty taint, and is probably unnecessary. I also thought the plot point about the amount of money they had in their account (donuts?) was a little too cute.
But minor complaints aside, ‘Breakdown’ is a brilliant thriller, featuring an engaging every man performance from Kurt, a terrifically hateful performance from Walsh, and a couple of white-knuckle (to use the cliché) set pieces. But maybe most importantly, it was unique in 1997 (and since), where the rapid development of computer generated effects were resulting in overkill in most summer films.