Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Breakdown (1997)

Breakdown, a 1997 action film co-written and directed by Jonathan Mostow (whose career since, which includes the likes of the third Terminator movie and Surrogates, has unfortunately only been okay) is filled to the brim with pleasures: Kurt Russell getting to play the kind of blue collar everyman-turned-hero-by-circumstance that he excels at, J.T. Walsh in his last great performance, gorgeous vistas of the American West, and a rare plot for its time that breaks the action narrative down to its essentials of simple good guys fighting simple bad guys. This last aspect makes the film especially refreshing. It seems like every other action movie from this era in the 90s involved assassins, globe-trotting narratives, the FBI or CIA, European thugs, corrupt government officials, and so on and so forth.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, if it's done well (the Renny Harlin/Shane Black extravaganza The Long Kiss Goodnight from a year earlier is a great example). But here Mostow takes a more elemental approach to the action film, stripping it down to basics and allowing the simplicity of its story, characters, and environment to heighten the sense of panic a viewer feels during a good action thriller. There's nothing else to distract us, no ulterior agenda or lavish decorations. The film's both refreshing and great.

A bit like John and Annie Greer from Seven Men from Now, Kurt Russell and Amy Quinlain play financially struggling husband/wife duo Jeff and Amy, who are heading West with the hope of a brighter future. Along the way their car fizzles out, hence the film's title. J.T Walsh is the amiable truck driver Red, who stops to assist and gives Amy a lift to a nearby phone while Jeff watches the car. Of course, it's no surprise that Red's friendliness is just an act, prompting a transference of the film's title on us: as Keith Uhlich notes in this video essay, once the film's wheels start turning, it becomes about how a movie can reach the level of suspense as to give the viewer an emotional breakdown. 

Of course this wouldn't mean a thing if Mostow didn't have a good sense of how to conduct a movie of this sort, because when a film vies for just the most basic elements of its genre, it runs the risk of being boring. But Mostow understands what this sort of story needs like a good cook understands that just the right amount of basic ingredients makes one hell of a soup. There's just enough character details to make them seem real (Jeff and Amy's financial situation is important for the way we empathize with them as characters, and then it also serves as a crucial aspect of the plot later in the movie), just enough strangeness and mystery to give the film suspense (a few great scenes in a diner come to mind), and the perfect amount of high-octane set-pieces to allow the director to showcase his prowess as an action filmmaker.

The real genius of the movie though comes in its ebb-and-flow structure, wherein problems arise followed by positive outcomes, proceeded by yet another complication, a pattern that drives the film. Just about every great sequence in the film is predicated on the idea that Jeff is ingenious enough to get out of a tough situation, but too damn unlucky to stay out of it (the best of these moments comes when Jeff's control of a situation is undone by the appearance of a kid with a rifle). It gets its momentum though by the fact that the troubles the main character finds himself in heighten as the movie progresses, climaxing in an crescendo in which clashing metal, panicked faces, and pavement-all central ingredients to the film-are sort of morphed together. It's completely over-the-top but also quite fitting given this structure and what it's building towards. 

To me, Breakdown is one of the great action movies. In stripping it down to something more primitive, it accentuates the fundamental aspects of the genre, and then utilizes those aspects brilliantly. It sweeps away the mess of convolution that defines far too many action movies, sort of like someone mopping up mud from a floor to find tiles, and then ripping up those tiles to find out what's underneath. 

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