Release Date: May 2, 1997
Box Office Gross: $50,159,144
Rotten Tomatoes Freshness Rating: 80%
Pertinent Review Line: “Breakdown feels at first so casual, so comfortable with its own small expectations (a good but unglamorous cast, a sturdy but unspectacular plot), that the authentic feelings of suspense are a surprise; by the time Jeff’s pursuit of Amy reaches its all-stops-out climax, you’re invigorated by something fresh.” – Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly.
We’re bringing this feature back full time, with one underrated movie discussed each quarter. And that starts right now with this taut, suspense thriller that seemingly no one I’ve ever talked to remembers. This movie came out when I was 15, and now, almost 15 years later, it’s gotten even better. And that’s weird to say since the movie serves basically as an enactment of my (and I’m guessing for some of you, your) worst nightmare.
The Case for Why It’s Not Underrated
Breakdown is a movie filled with standard tropes and a fairly bread and butter thriller plot. The scheme the villains concoct to extort the yuppy out-of-towners doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think critically about it, and except for his turn as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, Kurt Russell is one boring slice of Wonder Bread as an action hero. This movie made $50 million on a $35 million budget which makes it successful, but unremarkable similar to what feels like roughly 75% of the stuff Hollywood churns out each year. Meh…
The Case for Why It Is Underrated
I read the review linked above when I was 15 in Entertainment Weekly, and I remember that because it compelled me to see the movie that very next weekend. CJS Regular Dzayson and I went to a movie nearly every weekend that year, and Breakdown looked like nothing special. Something about that review struck a chord in me, and then seeing the movie plucked that chord with the skill of Jimmy Page.
You’d never know that if you watched it with Dzayson and me that weekend though. We crafted an entirely separate movie through our running commentary that placed villain MC Gainey as some sort of Jake “The Snake” Roberts disciple and had Kurt Russell frantically using pay phones to save money thanks to their comparatively cheap 20¢ cost. We cackled the whole way through it.
I don’t want to speak for Dzayson, but for me all of that obnoxiousness masked a very real, very potent sense of dread and uneasiness that runs through this movie. Not a moment is wasted here as director Jonathan Mostow keeps the action moving briskly and the paranoia ramped up to critical levels. There’s not a superfluous scene in the entire thing.
The story sees Jeff and Amy, two yuppy baby boomers move from Boston to San Diego in their bright, shiny, new Jeep Cherokee. After nearly crashing into a scummy local, played by MC Gainey, and exchanging some unpleasantries with him, their car breaks down in the middle of the desert. Not wanting to leave the car alone, Jeff stays with it while Amy hitches a ride with a helpful trucker played with affable menace by JT Walsh, who offers to drop her at a nearby diner.
When Jeff notices an unplugged connection, he quickly fixes it and heads to the diner. Amy is nowhere to be found. Jeff comes across the trucker again, only this time the trucker denies ever seeing him before. Foul plays is afoot, and Jeff is dragged into a web of extortion, kidnapping and violence his mild-mannered suburban existence probably never expected.
What makes Breakdown such an entertaining movie is that Mostow’s swift direction achieves two things. First, unlike many of today’s popular action films, Mostow avoids the shaky camera nonsense altogether and frames the action in a way that’s easy to follow while jump starting your pulse. You know where you are at all times, which is somehow even more tense than the dislocation of the Bourne movies or the sheer chaos of something like Cloverfield.
Second, and more importantly, Mostow frequently shoots from Jeff’s point of view. Near the film’s climax, Jeff watches the three villains unload the truck through a knothole from the roof of a barn. Mostow never deviates from this shot and we never get a closeup of our villains doing their evil deeds. This helps put emotional distance between the audience and the antagonists, and also forces us to empathize with Jeff.
This technique is frequently used during Breakdown, which is why this is such an effective thriller. We’re not just along for the ride with Jeff, we ARE Jeff. And for anyone in love, which includes me to an almost comical degree, wanting vengeance on the men who kidnapped your wife and tried to extort you for tens of thousands of dollars pulses through your veins effusively until the film’s ultimate payoff which amazingly earns its slightly overzealous coup de grace.
Breakdown is a 90 minute movie that feels like it goes by in about 5. The scenes are tight, the action furious, and the villains satisfyingly slimy, headed by all-time great JT Walsh. On your next hungover Saturday, find Breakdown on your On Demand service and watch trucks chase each other all over the desert. Your hangover will be gone before you can say “$90,000 or 90,000 donuts.”
And as we announced last week. We’re back! Throughout the month of March, we’re the old Cru Jones Society posting fresh content everyday. And it starts now. Come back tomorrow where Lee S. Hart will have a fresh batch of time wasting goodness all baked up for you in the delicious pie we call Happy Friday.
Damn it feels good to be back. Thanks for being here.
01 Mar 2012 E Dagger