(Jonathan Mostow, USA, 1997)


These days in movies, everyday paranoia – especially the fear of middle class citizens that every lower-class denizen is out to cheat, rob, violate and kill them – is concentrated in small, suburban, domestic settings. Breakdown takes us back to an older, ’70s tradition: the era of films including Deliverance (1972) and Duel (1971), when innocent holidays in harsh, natural landscapes brought infernal cataclysm upon mild-mannered pacifists.

Jeff (Kurt Russell) and Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are the unsuspecting souls in this mildly gripping and bloody tale. Although the couple’s finances are at a low ebb, the flashy car Jeff drives serves as an unfortunate beacon to a gang of tough, Southwestern crooks led by Red (J.T. Walsh). Their method of scamming is unsubtle but effective: they pick up innocents in distress, lock them away and eventually dispose of them after emptying their bank accounts.

For a while, Breakdown sets itself up as a prickly tale of conspiracy and corruption in a small town. When this general air of unease turns out to be a clever red herring, writer-director Jonathan Mostow shifts gears into straight action-film mode. Familiar generic thrills of survival and revenge are conveyed well as Jeff – separated for most of the story from his hapless, captive wife – struggles to get an upper hand over his cruel and wily foes.

Breakdown is fun to watch on a big screen, but its main life will likely be on home video. Far from the class of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), it at least has a pleasingly direct, no-nonsense style, free of Tarantino-type hip affectations.

And, every now and then, it provides a peek at some unusual, stirring variation on the elements of its formula – especially in a tense vignette set in the dining room of Red’s home, amidst the members of his blissfully unsuspecting family.

MORE Mostow: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, U-571

© Adrian Martin October 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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