Fox’s Breakdown doesn’t exactly set the old pulses racing. Yes, it’s an action-thriller with a mystery twist. But there are no Russian-accented, Uzi-toting terrorists to thwart. No escaped, coked-up convicts to deal with. And nobody is planning to take over the world, rob a bank, or send Russell into a futuristic city prison with a bomb in his head. There is a gang of nasty kidnappers (Russell’s wife does disappear, someone must have been responsible). But don’t let the absence of clichéd nonsense put you off. Breakdown may well be modest in scope, very small of cast and unoriginal in concept (The Vanishing, anyone?), but it effortlessly leaves recent, more costly blockbusters choking in the gas-guzzling wake of its thrill-power.
From its eye-catching opening titles, backed by Basil Poledouris’ ominous score, Breakdown grabs you from the start and rarely lets go. Admittedly, first-time director Jonathan Mostow and co-writer Sam Montgomery spring no real surprises or any eyebrow-raising plot twists. But, once Russell finds out what’s going on and decides to fight to get back his wife, the narrative zig-zags vigorously back, forth, up and down – just when you think our hero has the upper hand, the rug is pulled out from under his feet. Breakdown punches all the right buttons emotionally, and skilfully manages to maintain a very high level of suspense, never losing that it-could-happen-to-you feel as the story hurtles towards an explosive, satisfying finale.
It’s the film’s insistence on keeping its close ties to reality that makes Breakdown better than it has any right to be. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of heart-thumping action sequences: it does, but apart from its wildly over-the-top, stunt-filled climax (director Mostow gleefully tipping his hat to Duel), all of the action scenes have a certain plausibility which heightens the tension.
As assured as Mostow’s direction certainly is, Breakdown would only be half as effective if the acting was not up to scratch. Russell turns in an impressive performance as a lone man desperately fighting to save his wife, while at the same time at the complete mercy of the kidnappers. Having played his fair share of cocksure action heroes, he is more than capable of portraying Mr Average here, and it’s refreshing to root for a man who doesn’t always have a throwaway quip or a former Navy SEAL/Vietnam vet/cop past, someone who is brave but deeply aware of his limitations. Straight-to-video regular JT Walsh excels as the duplicitous trucker, who exudes menace without resorting to extreme violence. While Kathleen Quinlan unsurprisingly doesn’t get much to do (she’s off-screen most of the time), she works well with Russell in their early scenes together. Breakdown is a refreshing surprise.
It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a tightly-plotted mystery thriller, and so taken on its own terms succeeds where studio-wrecked movies like The Lost World and Batman & Robin failed. If nothing else, it achieves something you’d never thought possible: a truly decent Kurt Russell movie. A rare sight.