Jonathan Mostow, the director, is probably best known for his disappointing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Take heart, though. Mostow HAS proved he can direct a thrilling action film. I’ll see you on the other side, for a look at the Kurt Russell ‘vehicle’, 1997’s Breakdown.
Russell stars as Jeffrey Taylor, who is travelling across country with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan). They are moving away in their new car, to start a new life in San Diego. Jeff takes his eyes off the road and nearly sideswipes another driver. He then runs into him at a gas station, and they exchange words. A bit later, Jeff and Amy breakdown. The other car appears, and stops a kilometre down the road. They are relieved, then, when a trucker stops, and takes Amy to a diner to call a tow-truck. Jeff then gets the car working, but Amy is not at the diner. No-one has seen her. When Jeff tracks down the trucker, who claims no knowledge of Amy. Jeff becomes frantic, and the situation begins to spiral out of control.
Released with little fanfare, Breakdown is a surprise package. The plot of Breakdown is tense and thrilling. As things get worse for Jeff, you get a real sense of his desperation. The pacing is perfect. Whilst the story is moved along at a good pace, the full horror of the situation is revealed slowly, building up tension and hitting you with the surprises at the right time.
Russell is best known for his grizzled tough guy roles. But he is excellent as the mild mannered everyman. An ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, his fear and uncertainty over the fate of his wife is note perfect, in what is quietly one of the best performances of his career. When Jeff seizes his chance to take back some control, you’ll be routing for him all the way. The trucker, ‘Red’ Barr (J T Walsh), so normal seeming at first, becomes genuinely menacing, despite underplaying it all the way. Sadly, this was to be Walsh’s last film – he died suddenly shortly after filming. M C Gainey (who played a similar part in Con Air) is terrifying, exactly the kind of hillbilly you dread running into in the middle of nowhere.
The twists in the tale aren’t extraordinary, actually they’re fairly predictable. And if you enjoy this kind of film, you’ll already know that Steven Spielberg did it better in Duel over twenty-five years previously. However, the action and stunts are spectacular without becoming ridiculous, and the action-packed finale is fitting and completely satisfying.
Breakdown unfortunately didn’t set the box office alight. It made a gross of around 50 Million USD, but with a budget of around 36 Million USD, that’s not a great return. It is still under-appreciated to this day. It has a fairly average 6.8 rating on IMDB, and a slightly better 78% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
So don’t be too concerned about Jonathan Mostow. He can make great movies, and really, Terminator 3 wasn’t THAT bad. If Surrogates manages this level of tense drama and thrilling action, it’ll be well worth watching.
Breakdown is available now on DVD.
Surrogates is released in theatres this Friday 25th September, you can read the review here.