Friday May 2, 1997
It's so simple, it ought to be banal. A couple on a cross-country drive from New England to Southern California are stranded with engine trouble on a desolate stretch of highway in the Southwest desert. A passing truck pulls over, and its friendly driver offers them a ride to a nearby diner where they can call for help. The husband stays with the car; the wife goes with the trucker . . . and vanishes.
The rest of writer-director Jonathan Mostow's "Breakdown" follows the confused and frantic husband's attempts to find his wife and rescue her from kidnappers. Mostow, with his first feature, has made such a convincing, fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat thriller that you'd swear you'd never seen anything quite like it.
We did see these kinds of movies regularly in the pre-computer, pre-marketing era of Hollywood, when a special effect might be a matte shot or a car stunt instead of a computer-generated volcano, and when the thrills came through our identification with the characters' distress rather than some sense-battering, optical ooh-aah.
Mostow has gone back to that style, with a flair that Hitchcock would have appreciated. In fact, "Breakdown" loosely plays off the wrong-man theme so favored by the suspense master.
Jeff Taylor, played with absolute conviction by Kurt Russell, is an ordinary man forced to muster his wits and courage to fight against forces who think he's someone else. Not literally. J.T. Walsh's Red, a trucker and family man who moonlights as the leader of a gang of desert pirates, knows who his victims are, but he also thinks that because they're driving a new Jeep, they have a lot of money.
The truth is that Jeff and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), are down on their financial luck. They've got about $5,000 in the bank, and owe about $25,000 on their car loan and are driving across country to start over in Southern California. But once Jeff gets to know his wife's captors, he realizes she's dead the moment they learn there's no money.
Like Steven Spielberg's great TV movie "Duel," about a traveling salesman being terrorized by a trucker in the desert, "Breakdown" functions as an existential western. The Taylors become victims simply because they're there, vulnerable city slickers in a virtually lawless frontier. The only cop within view of a smoke signal thinks Jeff's crazy, and the locals are either in on the scheme or determined to look the other way.
It's a measure of Mostow's and Russell's success that we identify with every decision Jeff has to make, and though the movie missteps in a couple of places near the end, the payoffs come in the logic and legitimacy of Jeff's choices. You can question his judgment--especially when he lets his wife get on that truck in the first place--but almost everything he does afterward is rational, given the circumstances.
A glaring exception is a sequence where Jeff chases after a big rig turning onto a highway, gets a tenuous grip on its undercarriage and crawls forward to the back of the cab, where he hides for the duration of the trip. He's no longer Joe Average rising to the occasion; he's Indiana Jones on a busman's holiday, and the seconds devoted to this action interrupt the emotional flow of the story.
And it's unnecessary, since Mostow had a better option already set up. Earlier, Jeff gets a look at the sleeping space behind the truck driver's seat; why not have him slip in there when the driver's away and hope he doesn't get caught? It would be both more believable, and more suspenseful. It's what you'd do; sure it is.
But "Breakdown" is less likely to be remembered for the cliches it embraces than the ones it resists. This is a really solid first feature, and the best cardiovascular workout you're likely to have in a sitting position this year.
Breakdown, 1997. R, for strong violence/terror and language. A Dino De Laurentiis, and Spelling Films production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Jonathan Mostow. Producers Martha De Laurentiis, Dino De Laurentiis. Screenplay by Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery, based on a story by Mostow. Cinematographer Doug Milsome. Editors Derek Brechin, Kevin Stitt. Costumes Terry Dresbach. Music Basil Poledouris. Production design Victoria Paul. Art director Lee Mayman. Set decorator Peg Cummings. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Kurt Russell as Jeff Taylor. J.T. Walsh as Red Barr. Kathleen Quinlan as Amy Taylor. M.C. Gainey as Earl. Jack Noseworthy as Billy.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times