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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Breakdown (review)

Character Sketches

You know all that prattling on I’ve done about characters, and how lack of attention to them can make for a pretty boring flick? Well, whaddaya know: Breakdown couldn’t give two figs for characterization, and it doesn’t matter.

Jeff (Kurt Russell) and Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are moving from Massachusetts to San Diego, taking the scenic route through the desert in their new shiny red Jeep Cherokee, the payments on which are killing them. But they’re a happy couple despite their financial problems. And that’s all we know about them, and all we need to know. Because two seconds into Breakdown, writer/director Jonathan Mostow revs up a nightmare, and it doesn’t stop for a terse, tight 90 minutes.
Cruising through the desert, Jeff takes his eyes off the empty road for a moment, and a beat-up pickup truck pulls out in front of him from nowhere, sending both vehicles into desperate swerves. It seems a deliberate provocation, but Jeff plays cool when they run into the pickup at the next gas station. He senses some bad vibes, and you will too — it’s one big, bad, scary dude who gets out to confront Jeff, but even more menacing, somehow, is the shadowy figure still lurking in the truck.

You’ll breathe a momentary sigh of relief when Jeff and Amy get back onto the road in one piece, though you know this is only a brief respite. Sure enough, minutes later, the Jeep dies, and nothing will start it up again. And sure enough, the first vehicle by on the lonely road is the pickup — though it zooms by with some derisive horn blowing.

Only moments later, along comes a trucker (J.T. Walsh) in his big 18-wheeler, who takes a look at the Jeep, pronounces it dead, and offers Jeff and Amy a lift to the diner — and its phone — down the road a piece. He seems nice enough, this trucker, but you’ll know better — something to do with the pickup, watching the scene from the next hill like a vulture waiting to swoop down. You’ve got a real bad feeling about this. Your heart will sink when Jeff elects to stay with the shiny new Jeep while Amy accepts the lift and goes for help. And you’ll be right to despair.

Breakdown just lightly sketches its characters, enough to let us know that Jeff and Amy are worth rooting for and the bad guys worth booing. Quinlan shows some spunk and intelligence (unlike many a helpless movie babe), and Russell manages to look convincingly frightened while being pushed to heroism beyond his normal limits. The plot against Jeff and Amy is so intricate that it chills — yup, the trucker and his cohorts in the pickup are truly not nice people. Walsh, in particular, is practically schizophrenic: charming and loving with his family, and cold and nasty with his victims.

Part Hitchcock, part Twilight Zone, part Steven Seagal… Okay, Breakdown is mostly a testosterone fest, but it’s a good one.

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viewed at home on a small screen

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