Tuesday, 24 July 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Breakdown (Jonathan Mostow, 1997)

Jeff (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are in the middle of moving from the east coast to California.  When their car breaks down in the middle of the desert, she hitches a lift from a friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) to get help.

When she does not return, Jeff tries to figure out what happened. Soon, it becomes clear that Amy has been taken by a group of unscrupulous kidnappers.

With time running out, can Jeff outwit these evil men before Amy's time runs out?

I watched this movie after a debate with someone about why I was not interested in watching Ant-Man and the Wasp, despite the good buzz.

Watching this film really crystallised where my taste is at in this Marvel-centric time that we are in. Breakdown is not a big movie - it runs a brisk 90-ish minutes, features a few scenes of vehicular action and that is about it. And it is so exciting.

Co-written and directed by Jonathan Mostow (U-571Terminator 3Breakdown is an underrated gem. A no-nonsense thriller, it is not a particularly deep or complex movie. It is a story about someone who is not special in any particular way who is pushed to extraordinary lengths to save a loved one.

It is a pure, simple story with a strong, visceral drive: our heroes are average joes who are moving across country. They have financial problems, but their relationship does not seem to be strained: there is literally nothing exceptional or interesting about them. And that is so refreshing.

It also works for the story - the frightening part of the story is that the reason they are targeted is because the kidnappers clock their new car as a sign of affluence. In order to keep his wife alive, Jeff has to play into their perceptions of him - one of the key suspense threads is waiting for the villains to find out it is a ruse.

As Jeff, Kurt Russell is great. Despite his credibility as an action star in Escape from New York and Tango and Cash, he brings a nervy credibility to the milquetoast. What works about Russell as an action star is that he always feels like an everyman - it allows him to play the Eastwood-style outsider (Snake Plissken) with no interest in geopolitics, and the buffoonish sidekick who thinks he is John Wayne in Big Trouble In Little China. With Jeff, he is playing a guy with no comprehension of what he has gotten into. Jeff is not somebody who is used to being this scared, or angry. There is actually a sense that Jeff is terrified of his own rage.

At no point does he feel like an action guy - thrillers like this occasionally let their protagonists suddenly gain proficiency in firing a gun or firing a gun. Jeff always feels one step behind the ball.

The filmmakers downplay Jeff's metamorphosis, keeping him in the reactive role for two thirds of the movie, ending when he himself is kidnapped. This movie's effect is comparable to a rubber band being pulled back, as we watch Russell lose more and more ground to the villains. When the tables finally turn, it is like the band snaps back.

One of the joys of this movie is how small it feels. Despite most of the film taking place in cars, it rarely feels like a chase movie. There are few real chase sequences, or major stunts. Relatively speaking, as a Hollywood thriller Breakdown feels down-to-earth. Combined with Russell's performance, this level of verisimilitude gives the movie a level of danger these kinds of movies rarely attain.

A really great movie, Breakdown deserves to ranked alongside Steven Spielberg's Duel and the Ozploitation classic Roadgames as one of the best road-set suspense thrillers.

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