By Jack Hawkins.
In 1997, action thrillers such as Face/Off, Con Air and Air Force One commanded hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. The camerawork was slick and the spectacle was satisfyingly tangible. They had real stunts, real explosions and real car chases. Because of this, brawny action fare of the 80s and 90s occupy a special place in many nostalgic hearts, driving the popularity of contemporary franchises like John Wick and The Raid.
But not all action thrillers are remembered. Breakdown, released on 2 May 1997 and starring Kurt Russell, has been relegated to hidden-gem status. It doesn’t have the ballistic ballet of Face/Off or the pantomime villainy of Air Force One; rather, it mixes the frenzied energy of Duel with the real world, class-flavoured terror of Deliverance, resulting in a superlative piece of American thriller filmmaking.
The taut plotting wastes no time in establishing Jeff (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), a professional couple driving from Massachusetts to their new home in San Diego. They reach the desolate stretches of the American Southwest when their new Jeep shudders to a halt, minutes after a volatile exchange with a belligerent hick at a petrol station. Happily, an amiable truck driver agrees to take Amy to a nearby diner while Jeff guards their vehicle, but a nightmare ensues when she vanishes without a trace. Breakdown’s tagline is ‘it could happen to you’, and it largely rings true here in what is a credible depiction of a freak, disorientating situation.
This credibility is achieved in large part by the script, which deftly considers how the characters and viewers will react to situation – the questions they’d ask, the actions they’d take. But props are also due to the believable everyman in Kurt Russell, who had played another besieged, bourgeois husband in 1992’s Unlawful Entry.
Russell had faced a maniacally jealous cop in that film, but the enemy in Breakdown is more sinister than that. The enemy is a cabal whose criminal tentacles seem to have infiltrated every part of the sparse local community, making our protagonist – and us – feel deeply vulnerable. Jeff has no superpowers to prise Amy out of this desperate predicament; if the conspiracy doesn’t kill him, the oppressive American desert will.
All of this sweat, blood and hardship give Breakdown a soul that is missing in the synthetic claptrap of our era. But that is not to say Breakdown is a realist picture; notions of conceivability evaporate as the plot crescendos to a bombastic climax, one that could only exist in a Hollywood movie. Yet that is exactly what this is – a punchy American thriller with good guys, bad guys and a relentless life and death struggle. Besides, everything that precedes the finale – the tension, the mystery, the reversals of fortune – make for such compulsive viewing that we forgive and even welcome the sledgehammer denouement. It is the proverbial white-knuckle ride.
Cineastes may bemoan the rise of streaming services for their evisceration of hard copy media, yet these platforms can breathe new life into forgotten gems. Breakdown, which is available now on Amazon Prime, is a stellar case in point.
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