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The Essential Thrills of Jonathan Mostow’s ‘Breakdown’

Jonathan Mostow’s ‘Breakdown’ is a lean, muscular machine that hits the pavement in high gear and rarely lets up until the end.
Jonathan Mostow Breakdown
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on July 7th, 2016

Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the road-raging adventure of Jonathan Mostow’s ‘Breakdown.’

Motherfucking J.T. Walsh.

In the pantheon of character actors who turned playing malevolent pricks into a beautiful and brilliant art form, the likes of Paul Gleason, William Atherton, and Lane Smith reign supreme. Standing just above them though, his icy stare making even these great and terrible men tremble, is J.T. Walsh.

He didn’t start acting until he was forty, and he never really found himself in lead roles, but Walsh managed to immortalize himself through small, memorable performances in films as diverse as A Few Good Men, The Grifters, Needful Things, Pleasantville, and Sling Blade. His “bad guys” are rarely that simple – they’re often angry, sad, fearful, and/or insecure men whose grip on power isn’t nearly as strong as they think it should be. You hate these guys, but Walsh frequently gave them that little bit extra that left you feeling sorry for them too.

One of his less celebrated roles – and sadly, one of his last – is as a twisted truck driver and family man turned entrepreneurial kidnapper/murderer in 1997’s under-seen but lean and suspenseful Breakdown.

Of course, as great as Walsh is this is Kurt Russell’s show.

He plays one half of a married couple (with Kathleen Quinlan completing the pair) on a road trip from the East coast through the Midwest. They cross paths with an ornery local named Earl (M.C. Gainey) who gives them grief at a gas station before they head back out on the road only to experience car trouble. Unnerved by Earl’s idling truck nearby, Amy (Quinlan) takes a lift from a kindly semi-driver named Red Barr (Walsh) back to town while Jeff (Russell) waits by the car. Jeff ultimately fixes the car and heads to their designated meeting spot, but Amy never arrived. He hits the road in a panic and flags down the same trucker, but Red claims to have no idea what he’s talking about.

Some films might have taken that setup in a Twilight Zone-like direction, but writer/director Jonathan Mostow (along with co-writer Sam Montgomery) prefers to keep things perfectly simple. Jeff is stuck in a remote area surrounded by nothing but desert and suspicious locals – the guilty parties grow in number from one to four, and he even has reason to suspect the local police might be involved. They were only after his new car, but he’s forced to think fast when the men come to believe that the couple has $90k sitting in a bank account ripe for the taking, and he has to act even faster when forced to fight for his life.

Just as Walsh is the guy you love to hate, Russell has always been a performer who makes you root for his characters. Here he’s a normal guy turned into a ball of confused and scared energy, utterly out of his element but left with no choice if he ever wants to see his wife again. The film jumps immediately into action, but even those first few minutes with the couple feels real and a refreshing change of pace from the expected. Typically they’d have a fight of some kind before being separated, but here they’re happy, content, and looking forward. We believe they’re a couple in love, and that fuels the suspense we feel as Jeff searches for her.

In Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown, Look no further than the scene where Jeff sneaks into Red’s barn only to see them remove Amy’s body and announce that she’s dead. Russell’s eyes are frozen in place, his face gets that intense shake last seen in Backdraft’s “You go, we go” scene, and you realize you’re holding your breath along with him. The relief he feels when Amy starts kicking is mirrored by our own, and when they finally make eye contact for the first time since this ordeal started – she sees him peaking through the ceiling, a feat made possible solely on the power of his magically blue eyes – our emotional connection to his efforts is sealed. Even good thrillers can sometimes fail to make us give a damn about the characters and instead just get caught up in the action, but here our happiness and satisfaction are inexorably tied to this couple’s survival.

Beyond the strong cast, smart script, and characters the film’s other big appeal rests in its action sequences that eschew CG in favor of practical effects and stunt work. You can almost smell the grease and burned rubber as cars and trucks slam together and race down deserted highways – one imagines it’s these scenes that nabbed Mostow the directing gig on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

We get car chases, gun play, and even a scene that lands Jeff in fast-moving water. Actually seeing Russell panicked and floating quickly through the rapids – a stunt double most likely in wide shots, but him in several others – adds to the film’s grounded, authentic feel. He’s an every man, a John McClane without a badge, forced outside of his box by circumstance and malicious intent, and Russell sells it all. Jeff makes some rash decisions in the face of danger, and his expressions and exasperation make it clear he’s not entirely convinced any of them are the right call. Russell knows confidence is boring while the dogged determination of the underdog wins every time. It’s also what makes Miracle a fantastic movie even for those of us who don’t care about sports.

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It builds towards a big, suspenseful finale involving heavy vehicles, a bridge, and gravity, but as thrilling as the entire sequence is the film’s biggest pull for me remains Russell and Walsh. Breakdown was their fourth and final face off after butting heads in Tequila Sunrise, Executive Decision, and Backdraft, and it’s easily the strongest.

Walsh gets the rare chance to leave weakness behind and just channels his cold intent into the twisted Red. The scene where he taunts Jeff by describing Amy is as vile as it is matter-of-fact. “About 5’5”, 115lbs, 3 or 4 of that just pure tit,” he says with a slight smile. “Nice curly brown hair, upstairs and down.” He’s threatening in his words, but it’s the calm he delivers them with that unsettles the most.

Similarly, the scene where Jeff enters Red’s house to hold them all at gunpoint but is then surprised by Red’s rifle-toting son is another winner for them both. Walsh just emanates a wholly satisfied evil as he tells the child to shoot Jeff. He has no concern for the boy or his wife and only seeks to win, and the look on his face is the kind of smug born of a lifetime of such victories.

If there’s a criticism to be lobbed against Breakdown it’s in the character of Amy. Quinlan is given very little to do aside from be a victim and a goal for Jeff to achieve, but in addition to their opening banter Amy’s given two brief beats to up her respectability. She thinks fast and tells her captors they have $90k in the bank – an amount they don’t have, but one she trusts Jeff will know to say after an earlier conversation – and she gets the final blow against big, bad Red. After all that Jeff has done Red is still alive at the bottom of the ravine, and it’s Amy who drops the semi truck on his face.

Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown isn’t a flashy film by any means, but it’s exactly the kind of mid-level thriller I wish we’d see more of. It’s a lean, muscular machine that hits the pavement in high gear and rarely lets up until the end. Fans of solid, straight-forward action/suspense films owe it to themselves to check it out, but if you won’t do it for yourselves do it for Walsh. It’s never too late to show a prick a little love.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.