Blu-ray Review: Breakdown (1997)

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“The Lady Vanishes” is not just an early Hitchcock movie that writer-director Jonathan Mostow vividly remembers seeing as a kid, it’s also the premise of his big 1997 Hollywood breakout hit “Breakdown.” As tautly wound as a garrote and nearly as treacherous, shortly into the film, after a couple's brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee breaks down in the middle of the desert, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) leaves her husband (Kurt Russell) with the car and accepts a lift into town with a seemingly friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) before she vanishes like the sun setting in the west. Determined to get her back, even after a cop helps him confront trucker Red Barr (Walsh) who pretends he’s never seen Jeff (Russell) before in his life, our “everyman” knows he must do everything in his power to track his wife down himself.

An amazingly compact, efficient, and rivetingly effective thriller, from the moment that Katheleen Quinlan disappears, the action in “Breakdown” just goes-goes-goes Beat Generation style, barreling like a semi going down a very steep hill, yet never out-of-control. Clocking in at roughly ninety minutes, Mostow’s film plays like a gritty yet glossy entry into the universally relatable Ordinary Person in Extraordinary Peril subgenre of thriller that we saw so much of in the 1970s in everything from “Duel” to “Deliverance.”

Keeping some of its roots as a project developed based upon the work of Stephen King (like his short story “Trucks,” which the film’s producers had already made into “Maximum Overdrive” years earlier), after King backed out and wouldn’t lend his name to the picture, Mostow went back to his original Hitchcockian inspiration to deliver a frighteningly intense gaslit neo-action-noir. 

Missing the humor of “The Lady Vanishes,” or the investigation of faux female hysteria evident in both that picture as well as “Gaslight,” “So Long at the Fair,” and others, “Breakdown” is a no-holds-barred, pared-down, male-centric, intentionally “redneck” infused work of southwestern nastiness. And it's this last characteristic that Mostow emphasizes by making Jeff and Amy Taylor from Boston, as the couple moves west to San Diego in search of a better life. Like the settlers who ventured that direction in old western films or on the Oregon Trail in real life, in "Breakdown," Walsh and others make it clear that as outsiders, if they can't "hang," then they don't belong.

At its core, a tale of the women in this country (or really any country) who are here one minute but seemingly dissolve just like molecules and float away into the wind the next, “Breakdown” serves this up to us on a platter of oil, grease, and dirt gleaned from lonely back roads of America, until, filtered in futile rage, it becomes a vengeful Man on a Mission movie. Bolstered and made palatable by one of the most likable movie stars of his time, although Russell’s Jeff Taylor is a far cry from his iconic Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (or “Escape from L.A.,” which he made just before this), my personal favorite era and mode in the career of Kurt Russell is this one.

Catching up with him at a time where he was frequently cast as an everyman who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a ‘90s action movie with (likely) questionable politics, as epitomized by films like “Unlawful Entry,” “Executive Decision,” and “Breakdown,” back then, it was great to finally see him play something closer to the man his colleagues say he is in real life. And while all three of those films still pack a punch and pull you right in to get similarly bruised, battered, and blood pressure-shot alongside our lead, it’s “Breakdown” that feels perhaps the most timeless and/or maybe the least ‘90s of this particular ‘90s trio.

For as much as it was a film of its time (and it was indeed a movie that opened at number one at the box office), it still feels vintage in the best way. Not just a picture with more in common with those made a decade or two before it like “Duel" or “Road Games," "Breakdown" also deftly deals in questions of paranoia that fueled so many of the classic gaslight noirs, including the Hitchcockian comedy of manners and errors, “The Lady Vanishes.”

Though largely overlooked in conversations about the filmmaker’s most famous works, it’s safe to call “Vanishes” the most significant transportation-based mystery of its time, after Agatha Christie’s novel “Murder on the Orient Express,” which was written four years before Hitch’s film but adapted for the screen forty years later in 1974, right around the time “Duel” and “Deliverance” trafficked in similar thematic terrain.

Although some may say that everything old is new again (and what else is new), there’s this question of taking a wrong turn, possibly disappearing, and/or being thrust into a situation like this - especially when you’re vulnerable on the road, on the train, on the river, or on vacation - that makes these films so urgently gripping. At the same time, admittedly, some of the films cited have a convoluted solution, and sure enough, as “Breakdown” devolves into a work of near horror closer to its conclusion, it sacrifices some of its relatable ingenuity and mystery in order to give us a true showdown of bravura and vengeance and pushes our suspension of disbelief close to its breaking point.

But it’s still such a well-written, crackerjack, nerve-jangling, heart in your throat affair that’s anchored by the casting of “every day” Kurt that we just can’t help holding on and staying with it (and him) until the very end. Produced by Dino and Martha De Laurentiis, and filled with practical effects, real trucks, and Russell doing his own stunts - including driving a Jeep downhill and going with it right into the water - “Breakdown” is a throwback to the days before CGI dominated everything.

Famously, however, in his largely glowing review of the film from 1997, “Chicago Sun-Times” critic Roger Ebert pointed out that he felt that the ending of “Breakdown” swung too far into old testament “eye for an eye” territory than he felt it needed to as we see our leads battle it out. Yet although I can understand that perspective, at the same time, the movie’s western desert setting has the mythos of that genre built right into the landscape so I think that, although it’s undeniably an over-the-top over-kill, it still gives viewers a very meta form of catharsis in at least seeing a female character assert herself in this environment where they’re typically forgotten and/or used as cattle or currency.

(Note: I’ll be intentionally vague here to avoid concrete spoilers but you’ve been warned.)

To this end, one fascinating new revelation that's revealed in one of the terrific bonus features available in Paramount’s spotless new Blu-ray is that this final bit of comeuppance was given to this cast member by Kurt Russell in an act of solidarity. Tired of seeing women only play the victim, after she requested one victorious moment where she could turn the tables on her captor without being “forced” to do so in an act of self-defense, Russell stepped in and offered her the film’s final bit of frontier justice that he was supposed to dole out himself. And while, of course, it’s ridiculous as noted, seen in this light and not only in an era of Me Too but also after decades of movies of this type where women are usually gaslit, abducted, or killed, I must say I’m all for it.

An unrelenting thriller where the minutes fly by as quickly as Quinlan’s lady vanishes from Russell’s eye line, while as a film geek, it’s fun to dissect which legendary films of the past might’ve inspired Mostow’s “Breakdown,” on a Saturday night, it’s far more entertaining to first buckle into that newly vacant shotgun seat of that Jeep Grand Cherokee with Russell at the wheel and just go along for the ride.

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