May 2, 2009

Underrated MOTM: Breakdown (1997)

Since I've enjoyed some really solid European suspense thrillers over the last month at MSPIFF, I've jumped back to the 90's again to find a decent American one for April's (belated) Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM). Jonathon Mostow's Breakdown, which opened 12 years ago this week, is a flawed but ultimately well-crafted and nerve-wracking film. To be honest, it's stayed with me primarily because of the theater experience I had while watching it (kind of a long story), but after seeing parts of it again I remembered its horrifying premise and gripping delivery.

Not that it's really considered a dud, but mostly positive reviews aside, shouldn't we appreciate it and movies like it more during this absolute drought of American thrillers? Over the last two years, for example, every first-tier No Country for Old Men or Zodiac, or second-tier Transsiberian or Gone Baby Gone, is outnumbered by an Eagle Eye, Vantage Point, 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill, or Untraceable, to name just a few. That I've seen none of those last five is, well, the point. American directors and studios are in far too deep with remakes, sequels, and "reboots" to think of anything new, while across the pond there's a seemingly constant stream of quality suspense. But this is really another rant for another time. The point is, Breakdown deserves credit for being, flaws aside, one of the last decent thrillers of the 90's, when filmmakers attempted to make original stories and plot twists were patiently paced (one of my favorite movies, A Simple Plan, being another example of this).

The story is simple: Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) are a married couple moving from Massachusetts to San Diego. Somewhere in the desolate desert of the Southwest, their new Jeep Cherokee breaks down. A friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) stops and offers to help. He agrees to take Amy to a local diner to call a tow truck while Jeff waits with the car. Problem is, Amy never comes back, and when Jeff eventually finds the diner and the trucker, everybody plays dumb, claiming they've never seen him or his now-missing wife.

Although it was accused of being too similar to The Vanishing (which I haven't seen) and Deliverance, some of the criticism of Breakdown was surprisingly harsh. James Bernadelli ripped Jonathon Mostow for his"pedestrian direction and unoriginal script," complaining that "its increasingly-preposterous turns come across as laughable." He went on to call Breakdown "a long, drawn-out bore...if this movie was a car, it would have been hauled off to the junk yard." Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader was even less forgiving, attacking the film on moral grounds for "turning people into garbage...Breakdown has plenty of deft action sequences, and what they add up to is nifty garbage disposal, with all of us--characters, filmmakers, viewers--ultimately spiraling down the same drain." Ouch, guys.

Getting more specific, Stephen Hunter complained in the Washington Post that Kurt Russell's "lack of energy afflicts the film as much as its director's lack of ideas". He goes on about Russell repeatedly: "He does a lot of running around while making desperate faces, but he never projects a sense of deep rage. He never gets dangerous." So driving his car into a river, choking and stabbing a guy and then wielding and firing a gun is child's play? Russell's performance is wholly unappreciated and pitch perfect. There are few actors who can play calm, charming, paranoid, desperate, and enraged, all while toughing out some impressive stunts. Also, after rewatching those parts of Breakdown I appreciated how well Russell simply played a loving husband doing everything in his power to save his wife.

As Red, the evil trucker, J.T. Walsh also gives a controlled, creepy performance. It would be the last film Walsh would see released before his death from a heart attack in February of 1998, and it was a perfect example of his sleazy style. I'm sure Walsh was a nice guy in real life, but man, what a track record of nasty characters.

This solid acting in a Hitchcockian, innocent-guy-seeking-retribution story makes Breakdown a movie you can't turn away from. I don't know why this movie doesn't show up on cable more often, and I can only lament the fact that American directors seem uninterested in making suspense thrillers like it these days. The closest they come are, of course, remakes, such as the recently announced American remake of last year's Tell No One. As it's likely that will be terrible, do yourself a favor and just rent Breakdown instead. It's elementary, pretty predictable, and not altogether perfect. But it's well-executed and tense, and you'll never drive through an empty desert again without thinking about it.


  1. I liked this movie when it was Spoorloos. ;)

  2. Hey, I can't deny that Spoorloos (The Vanishing) sounds pretty similar (and similar enough that I want to see it), but I'll take solace in the fact that Breakdown wasn't officially a "remake" like Tell No One is going to be.

    But yeah, you got me on that fact - lamenting a lack of originality when this one wasn't exactly a brand new story...

    Nonetheless I thought it was done well, and at least it was a suspense thriller by an American director.

  3. Yet another UMOTM that I rather enjoy. Good as Russell is here (I agree with you that he's unappreciated for this), it's due mostly to the menacing presence of Walsh, who might've been the two-faced king - capable of appearing as an aww-shucks rural guy one second and a cutthroat killer the next, all with just the slightest turn in his mouth.

    I've always felt like this owed more to Duel than anything else, as the path of rage for the protagonist follows the same arc over the course of the film.

  4. It's funny, after seeing this movie once you can't get Walsh's nastiness out of your head, but for people seeing it for the first time (especially if they don't know what kind of characters he often played), it would be a real shock to see him turn.

    Duel was mentioned a lot in reviews for this as well. I haven't seen it, but it sounds to me like TRUCKS, starring good old Timothy Busfield.

  5. All I remember about this film was being pretty scared when I saw it in the theater; even knowing what might happen in a movie like this (I think even back then the trailers gave a lot away) it still freaked me out ... could have been the quadruple espresso I had before-hand with my friends though -- ahh college days. Good pick for this month again - thanks!

    Also I realize now that I remembered Quinlan in this, but I have too disagree with you and others about Russell -- he made no impression on me whatsoever. I kind of forgot it was him; if you would have inserted another actor's name in and I hadn't seen the picture you posted I would have believed you. I actually think I have a problem with Kurt Russell though, and it's not really conscious, just that his acting usually makes no impression on me, like a color-blind person who can't see the green spots in between the red ones. Guess I'm Kurt Russell-blind.

    Walsh though, like you and Fletch both elaborated on, was definitely excellent as always -- he surely would have qualified for some sort of Underrated Actor of the Year award if Getafilm had existed during his prime. Died too young; sad.

    Great point about the quality thrillers, American or otherwise, being too scarce these day. Saw 88 Minutes recently - yikes was that bad, so bad for a while I thought it was a philosophical take on bad B-movies, but then no, it just stayed bad. I've seen commercials for cable TV movies-of-the-week that were better than that. Horrid. What's up with Pacino seriously between that and Righteous Kill -- just sick of working with quality scripts? I'm already used to De Niro acting in a stinker about every 4th film lately. Overall both their bodies of work will stand up but I don't see how slumming it in these crap thrillers will help hone their craft at this point or whatever ...

  6. Hehe, well Kurt Russell never really stands out that much I guess. He's kind of like Tom Cruise in that way, never really branching out too far and playing a zany character (which Cruise finally did in Tropic Thunder). But like Tom Cruise, I think he's great in his niche of roles.

    Wow, I am surprised you saw 88 Minutes, at least over Righteous Kill. Or maybe you suffered through that, too? Same director, probably the same bad movie.

    I don't know what those guys are doing, but I've had discussions here and maybe more elsewhere. Nobody's really given me a reason that makes any sense.

  7. I really liked Breakdown. Russell can get down and dirty with the best of them.

    I've seen Vantage Point, Righteous Kill, and Untraceable. The first wasn't terrible, the second wasn't tolerable and Untraceable was the worst piece of cinematic trash I saw last year.

  8. Thanks, Reel Whore. Believe it or not I heard the same things about those three but in reverse order - Vantage Point being the worst!

    Either way, "wasn't terrible" isn't an enthusiastic enough recommendation for me to check that one out...


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