Road films are something of a passion when it comes to movies for me. It could be a movie on a ten-lane highway guaranteed to have multiple car crashes, a two-lane cross country expedition, or a one-lane dirt road going into darkness where the passengers might never return. Nothing gets me going more than films like The Hitcher, Road Games, Two-Lane Blacktop, or The Duel. It is the idea of not knowing exactly where the next turn is going to take you or what lies beyond the next hill. Characters, environments, situations all can change once you get to the next town or cross another state line. Today’s road film is the 1997 thriller, Breakdown, with Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh, where we explore what a man must do in order to find his missing wife. As one might guess, it is one of my favorites, as it delivers one nail-biting scene after another. Let’s take a look.
A hot Utah desert, a long winding road, and a moving (possibly speeding) red Jeep. Jeff Taylor (played by Kurt Russell) and his wife, Amy (played by Kathleen Quinlan) are taking a trip from Boston to San Diego where Jeff has a new job waiting for him. The road seems monotonous as the driver reaches behind him to grab something. All of the sudden, an old dirty Ford F-150 truck pulls out in front of him and nearly causes an accident, but Jeff is able to swerve away from the accident just in time.
Frustrated and flustered, the couple pulls into the next gas station to clear their heads and grab some munchies. Jeff also buys some oil as he looks under his hood to make sure there is nothing wrong with his vehicle. As another truck and trailer peel away; we reveal the same F-150 dingy white pickup we saw previously. Out steps Earl (played by M.C. Gainey), who approaches Mr. Taylor and his brand new Cherokee. At first, our mustached cowboy is really appreciative of the car as Jeff tries to make some small talk back. Unfortunately that does not last long as the two get into a verbal joust.
It soon stops once the wife comes out, and then the couple leaves as Earl continues to stare. Halfway down the road, however, Jeff and Amy encounter more trouble as their brand new Jeep’s lights and gauges start to make noises and flashes as it slows down to a stop. The husband decides to do the man thing and check under the hood. He then tries his cell phone with no luck. No sooner than a minute later, Earl and his pickup speed past and Earl yells as he goes by. As Amy watches the truck down the road, Earl stops and turns around. The car sits at the top of a hill and waits until Jeff flags down an eighteen-wheeler.
Out of the Peterbilt steps Red Barr (played by J.T. Walsh), a long time trucker. He offers to drive them to Belle’s Diner, a restaurant that is just a few miles down the road. After thinking about it, the wife offers to go with the trucker to the diner and then make a call for a tow truck. Meanwhile, Jeff will stay with the vehicle so no one hopefully gets any bright ideas. She leaves with Red Barr down the road. Meanwhile, Mr. Taylor waits and waits and waits some more until he realizes there isn’t any tow truck, nor is his wife coming back.
Jeff takes another look at the Jeep and gets down low enough to look under the car. That’s when he realizes that there are a couple of wires that are disconnected. He puts them back together and all of the sudden, the vehicle starts right back up and is able to run smoothly. He eventually finds his way to the Belle’s Diner the trucker spoke of. Unfortunately for him, Amy is still nowhere to be found, and no one has seen the lady either. Terrified and concerned, Jeff must find his wife before she winds up missing for good.
From then on, it’s a race against time for Jeff, and we are along for the ride. An interesting thing right off the bat is that this film is almost entirely from Jeff’s perspective. Every scene, every cut is Kurt’s character as we watch every decision he has to take in order to gain his wife back. It is one of those thrillers that puts you on the edge of your seat and does not let up until the final credits roll. The villains truly create an atmosphere where you hate them for what they are putting this couple through, and we want Jeff to make the right decisions so he can save his wife.
Furthermore, Kurt’s character doesn’t gain some superhero-like powers and even makes a few minor mistakes along the way, so this helps to create a believable scenario that we want to follow until the end. In addition to the couple and the villains, we also get an assortment of locals who really push across the we-can’t-trust-outsiders vibe. This is a top-notch thriller in a low-budget wrapper, one where it makes full use of its environment and has some marvelous direction. If there were an issue to be had, it would be that after seeing this movie probably about half a dozen times, I still am concerned about what happens after the police get there in the closing shots.
This movie is filmed in a 2.35:1 widescreen format from a 4K scan at Paramount Pictures. As far as physical formats, this movie has only had a DVE copy since about, well, 1998 so even though this is an older master, it still looks quite good. Colors are fantastic, and there is a lot of detail with the beautiful scrolling desert landscape firmly in almost every shot. I swear I need a bath, because after watching this movie, I can actually feel the desert air enveloping me in dust and grime.
One needs to look no further for what I’m talking about than the bank scene where Kurt’s character waits not so patiently for the manager to help him. The beads of sweat on Kurt Russell, the detail on the desk of the money wrappers (I can actually tell the amounts, which I don’t really remember from before) and the harrowed look of the bank manager add to the scene more than ever before. Perhaps, if I really wanted to throw stones, there is some loss of detail, say in the “rapids” scene, but the criticisms are few and far between in this great presentation.
The sound to this film is presented in both DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio as well as PCM 2.0 in English. The improvements to audio are also pretty apparent from the first time Basil Poledouris‘s score starts to kick in. It’s an understated score (on purpose), but it asserts itself to be part of the scene and helps to keep you planted in the setting. Moving on to the sound effects, we get a little more oomph from the explosions or the rev of the car engine as it fills out the speakers nicely.
Perhaps the biggest positive in the audio section is that dialog is crisp, clear, and has no poor spots whatsoever in the film. Even at low levels, the speaking between the actors is full enough that one can hear without distraction due to an out-of-place effect or musical cue. This is the best this is going to sound without being artificial in its sound field. Optional English subtitles are provided and do a fine job here, and I didn’t notice any obvious errors or missing words.
Notes: For the soundtrack seekers out there, you will need to break out the wallet on this film. The only known soundtrack to this film is a three CD limited edition of 3,000 units that was put out in 2011 by La-La Land. The first CD has the score as you know it; the second has a more orchestral feel to it by Basil Poledouris, while the third is alternate takes on various musical passages. This release will cost you at least $50, but more than likely in the $75 to $80 range assuming you even know where to look for a copy.
Audio Commentary by Film Critic Peter Tonguette: Peter has written for many publications including the New York Times (I’ll let him slide for that dirt rag), Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, and others. Here he talks about among many other subjects about how Breakdown is in a long lost line of thrillers that were more about the characters than they were about the next whiz-bang special effect. That the movie actually went the direction of likeable veteran actors rather than some up-and-comers who would have changed the feel and possibly look of the movie instantly. He compares the film to The Birds in that we listen to the couple talk about their seemingly ordinary mundane problems before it gives away to life-and-death circumstances.
Peter also goes into many anecdotes and comparisons which show that he has done his research when it comes to this film. I think a lot of times I listen to these critics (even though I consider myself one) and they become an encyclopedia and regurgitate all they know rather than having a conversation with the viewer. Instead we get some interesting information above the movie, about Kurt Russell and how he went from family film to action film star (and arguably back again if you have seen the Christmas Chronicle films). Heck, Mr. Tonguette even finds time to make a Nothing But Trouble reference. For that, in my book this is a great listen and right up there with some of Bey Logan‘s critic commentaries from the Dragon Dynasty days.
“IT’S GONNA COST YOU: MAKING BREAKDOWN” – A new in-depth interview with writer/director Jonathan Mostow 23:49: Our director takes us on a journey of his filmmaking as we see shots from one of his other films entitled Flight of Black Angel. In the beginning, the film was set to modeled after a short story by Stephen King named Trucks. However, a previous film named Maximum Overdrive, which was based on the same concept, made them legally drop the project. The following project which led into Breakdown didn’t have anything to do with that concept, but they loved the location so much they stuck with it, and thus this film was born. He also talks about the period of time when there was a second director (Sam Montgomery) working the set. Apparently this led to an alternate opening sequence with a completely different direction that was thankfully dropped after the second test screening. There is much here about the characters and the appreciation he has for Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh (and how this was his next-to-last film before he passed).
“THE TRAP IS SET: INSIDE THE STUNTS” – A new interview with stunt coordinator M. James Arnett 9:55: Previous credits include Foul Play, Rocketeer and Wolf, among many other films. He takes us into the art of shooting inside the car and then outside the car (which as some of us might be aware is actually two shots). Jim also takes us into the underneath-the-truck scene, which I think my knuckles are still white from watching. There is also some stuff here about special trucks and other effects that will make you more appreciative of the film.
“WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME: REMEMBERING BASIL POLEDOURIS” – A new interview with musician Eric Colvin about his time working with composer Basil Poledouris 13:05: Eric describes how Basil worked at the piano and then would go see Eric and tell him what he needs. They also talk about replacement scores and how the music took on a much different direction from the eighty-piece orchestra that Basil originally imagined. Unfortunately Basil left us in 2006.
“THEY THINK I’M A DUMMY – Jack Noseworthy on Breakdown 11:07: Jack Noseworthy plays Billy, who is the epitome of a character that starts out as one thing (or one behavior) and then ends up in a different way. He talks about his role and how he loved some of the great monologues from the film. He also talks about the director and some of his experiences while on set.
“Life is Jeep: Breakdown and the Psychology of the Road” A Visual Essay by Ian Mantgan 15:23: This is a fun essay where the comparison is made between this film and others like Hitcher and U-Turn (which is a fantastic film that I also found within the last few years). There are also comparisons here with The Vanishing and Duel as well as Easy Rider. The analysis of characters is in-depth while it is not only a road movie but also has a home-invasion theme of sorts. Ian even touches into Russell’s past films like Tequila Sunrise, Backdraft, and Executive Decision, which were all around the same time period.
Interview with film Critic Tim Robey 17:41: Robey starts the conversation talking about the landscape of Utah and paralleling that to past films like Unlawful Entry (also with Kurt Russell) and The Fugitive. He also mentions some of Russell’s not so well reviewed films like Soldier and Escape from L.A. and says this film was a step up in showing off this range. There is also some discussion on the soundtrack of the film and how well it plays off the events as they happen. Lots of good information, but perhaps just a touch dull in the presentation.
Theatrical Trailer 2:07: The original trailer for this film. Interestingly enough, a lot of the emphasis seems to be on Jack Noseworthy, which is interesting since he’s not the main villain. Probably done on purpose to shield Walsh’s character, though.
Notes: For those of you who are new to Imprint films or Viavision Entertainment, they are an Australian Blu-ray maker and typically do an LE slipcase for each of their releases for the first 1500-2000 copies. They also use clear cases (wide type similar to Criterions). It really makes for a nice package. They can be found at https://viavision.com.au/imprint-films/.
While Breakdown was a modest hit back in 1997, it actually gained more notoriety as time went on and became something of a cult classic to those who like road movies or smart thrillers. It’s probably the best film that Kurt has ever done that didn’t involve John Carpenter. It firmly puts you on the edge of your seat and doesn’t let up by creating a movie that feels like it sits inside Jeff Taylor’s head as he tries to find and ultimately save his wife. It’s desperation and the acts that lead that man into situations he would never imagine himself being in. As good as Kurt Russell actually is in his role, it’s the supporting cast including J.T. Walsh and M.C. Gainey that actually cement the film as possibly superior to the lead.
This is my first Imprint Films disc and Viavision Entertainment has done a fantastic job here in both presentation as well as quality. It’s on the level of Criterion or Arrow and I certainly look forward to the next Imprint disc I get which will probably be The Mothman Prophecies in May (it is a late April release in Australia but it will take a couple of weeks to get here). The video and audio are done quite well and while I of course still wish for some sort of Kurt Russell participation in these blu-ray releases, we do get a fair number of knowledgeable critics and some of the crew to round out a great list of extras. So don’t be a dummy, don’t think I picked you out of the clear blue. It’ll be a week before anyone misses you if you don’t run out and get this edition before it sells out. Heavily recommended and enjoy.