Director: Jonathan Mostow
Screenplay: Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery
Stars: Kurt Russell (Jeff Taylor), J.T. Walsh (Red Barr), Kathleen Quinlan (Amy Taylor), M.C. Gainey (Earl), Jack Noseworthy (Billy), Rex Linn (Sheriff Boyd), Ritch Brinkley (Al), Moira Harris (Arleen)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1997
Country: U.S.
Breakdown Paramount Presents Blu-ray

Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown has an opening setup that is so good, so finely tuned and effective, that you can’t help but worry that the rest of the film won’t live up to it. And, alas, it doesn’t, but it is still good enough to make the film work as a taut, wronged-everyman thriller. The opening is reminiscent of the 1988 Dutch thriller The Vanishing (which the director, George Sluizer, inexplicably remade as a vastly inferior American film in 1993), where a husband and wife are on a road trip and the wife literally disappears into thin air. In The Vanishing, we know who is responsible from the start, we just don’t know exactly what happened and what will follow; in Breakdown it is much the same, although we can’t be exactly sure who is in on the game.

The bewildered husband, Jeff Taylor, is played by Kurt Russell in a constant state of anxiety and frustration. He and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), are driving across the vast Southwest desert, the last leg of a move from the East Coast to California (dialogue about financial problems suggest sthey are trying to make a clean start on the West Coast). After an altercation with a menacing, mustachioed redneck at a gas station, their shiny new Jeep Cherokee breaks down in the middle of a particularly deserted stretch of highway. Luckily for them (or, unluckily as it turns out), a friendly trucker named Red Barr (veteran character actor J.T. Walsh in one of his last roles) happens along and agrees to drive Amy five miles down the road to a roadside diner so she can call a tow truck while Jeff stays with the car.

After waiting several hours, Jeff manages to get the car started himself and drives to the diner, only to discover that—surprise!—his wife never arrived. In a stroke of luck (and/or narrative necessity), he sees Red driving by and manages to flag him down, only to have Red tell him with a completely straight face that he has never seen him before in his life. A police officer conveniently driving by searches the truck, but finds no signs of Amy. Although this turn of events is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and its many imitators, we never really suspect that Jeff is losing his mind. Rather, we know that Red is up to something—no one, after all, is that kind and polite—and the real questions are what that something is, how Jeff, who is increasingly (and understandably) exasperated, is going to figure it out, and what is he going to do about it. For a good portion of the time he dutifully goes through the motions, reporting the disappearance to the police and retracing all their steps, but at every turn he runs into people who are either actively hostile toward him (which includes pretty much everyone in the roadside diner where he was supposed to meet Amy) or passively resigned to the fact that she will likely never be found (in this respect, the film’s title, which obviously refers to the car breaking down, could also reflect the breakdown of all the social and legal systems in place that are meant to help desperate people like Jeff).

This opening act is sharply written and directed, creating a real gnaw in the gut and desire to learn what is happening. Unfortunately, when the set-up is this good, almost no explanation can possibly suffice. The Vanishing set up a similar situation, but answered it with a cold, calculating resolution that was so shocking in and of itself that it made you forget the first half. Breakdown is a much more conventional Hollywood thriller, so it settles for a clever mystery scheme and then moves right into an action / suspense mode that is part Deliverance (1972), with Southwestern rednecks substituting for Southern hillbillies, and part Road Warrior (1981), complete with a rampaging eighteen-wheeler and fireball explosions in the middle of the desert highway. When it draws into a grand finale of a road chase that climaxes with two trucks dangling precariously from a bridge like something in a James Bond movie, you might begin to wonder at what point did Breakdown make this turn.

Director and co-writer Jonathan Mostow, who had previously directed the low-budget comedy Beverly Hills Bodysnatchers (1989) and the made-for-TV movie Flight of Black Angel (1991), keeps the tension high and the desire for righteous vengeance palpable by aligning us entirely with Jeff’s besieged-yuppie experience (the screenplay was cowritten by Sam Montgomery, who would go on to be a writer and producer on the fifth season of 24). He relies a bit too much at times on cliché camera angles, such as the cars flying over the camera, and lots of long pull-away shots to show us how alone Jeff is feeling, but his direction is solid enough to earn some real emotional payoff when it’s needed.

Breakdown was successful enough that it earned Mostow the opportunity to helm bigger projects, including the submarine thriller U-571 (2000) and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), the first film in the franchise not directed by James Cameron. Unfortunately, since then he has directed only a handful of films: the made-for-television sci-fi movie Them (2007), the Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates (2009), and the revenge drama The Hunter’s Prayer (2017). Breakdown showed that Mostow had a lot of promise, as he milks every drop he can from an admittedly thin premise, and it is too bad that his career didn’t grow accordingly.

Breakdown “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French
  • Audio commentary by director Jonathan Mostow and actor Kurt Russell
  • “Filmmaker Focus: Director Jonathan Mostow on Breakdown” featurette
  • “Victory Is Hers: Kathleen Quinlan on Breakdown” featurette
  • “A Brilliant Partnership: Martha De Laurentiis on Breakdown” featurette
  • Alternate opening
  • Alternate opening with commentary by Mostow
  • Isolated score
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateSeptember 21, 2021

    The 1080p/AVC-encoded image on the “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray comes from a new 4K scan that was approved by director Jonathan Mostow, and it looks great. This release couldn’t come soon enough, as Breakdown has not had a physical media release in Region 1 since the original DVD that came out in the late ’90s with a nonanamorphic widescreen image. The Blu-ray returns the impressive texture and detail of the desert Southwest, which lends a gritty, realistic vibe to the action (the cinematography is by Douglas Milsome, who had previously shot several episodes of the miniseries Lonesome Dove and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket). The image is clean and well rendered, with a nice sheen of 35mm film grain. The exterior desert scenes are bright and crisp, but there are numerous scenes later in the film that take place in dark interiors, and the transfer handles shadow detail and black levels very well. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel soundtrack is also duly impressive, with great separation and sound effects to immerse us in the action scenes. The LFE channel gets a good workout with all the cars smashing and crashing, but the quieter scenes are also well managed, with subtle environment sounds spread across the soundstage. The disc also gives you the option of watching the film with Basil Poledouris’s pulsating score on an isolated track. Paramount has supplied an impressive list of supplements, starting with a new audio commentary that reunites Mostow and actor Kurt Russell. They reminsce about shooting the film and clearly enjoyed watching it together for the first time in a long time. There are also three new interview featurettes: “Filmmaker Focus: Director Jonathan Mostow on Breakdown,” “Victory Is Hers: Kathleen Quinlan on Breakdown,” and “A Brilliant Partnership: Martha De Laurentiis on Breakdown.” One of the most intriguing new inclusions is a (terrible) 8-minute alternate opening that can be viewed with or without commentary by Mostow. Mostow also appears in a brief introduction to explain how this alternate opening came to be shot (it was essentially forced on him by the producers) and why it was, wisely, dropped after initial previews.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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