20 Years of Breakdown

20 Years of Breakdown

This week, with no fanfare - not so much as a goose fart - the Kurt Russell starring, simple, tense and exciting 90s thriller, Breakdown turned 20. 

The 90s were strewn with thrillers like the desert is apparently strewn with lank haired hillbillies looking to abscond with your wife, Breakdown, though, I think, stands out above most of them.

It is for this reason, and many others - including boredom, nerdyness and attention - that I decided to celebrate its 20th Anniversary on this very website.

Very quickly, for the uninitiated, Breakdown is a fast moving thriller about a hard-up yuppy couple, traveling cross-country to their new home when some malevolent truckers kidnap the wife and try to force the husband to pay a ransom he can't afford. With quick thinking, timing and blind luck, the husband must turn the tables on the kidnappers and save his wife. 

By the time 1997 rolled around we were all aware that Kurt Russell was very much 'the man'. There was seemingly nothing he couldn't do: Comedy, sports, action, sci-fi and rock a beautiful feathered mullet without blushing or losing credibility. Even Captain Ron could not stop the Russell juggernaut. 

The 90s Russell gave us Tombstone, Stargate, Executive Decision, the return of Snake Plissken in Escape From L.A. (I like it - see here) and Breakdown. While most of those films, if not all of them, will get or have got "special editions" and/or "anniversary editions" where is the love for Breakdown

Kurt had, twice before in the 90s, dabbled with the seemingly-average-yuppy-with-a-mullet turns desperate action man role - in Unlawful Entry and Executive Decision - in Breakdown he's at it again but I think in an even more believable, desperate and insecure way. Audiences knew by then that, when the chips were down, Russell would do his best to kick some serious ass but I wonder were they prepared for him to be quite so out of his depth for quite so long as he is in this movie.

I, personally, love it and feel like he earns his heroic moments all the more by giving us a protagonist we can see ourselves in and, ultimately, root for. 

As the kidnapping antagonists of the film, there is no greater threat than the combined power of M.C. Gainey's moustache and the evil, powerful eyes of everyone's favourite bastard villain, J.T. Walsh. The two of them have more on-screen menace than they do initials. 

Russell had bested a madly hammy Liotta in Unlawful Entry and easily defeated the terrorists of TV's Hercule Poirot himself, David Suchet in Executive Decision but even we Russell friendly audience members fear he may have met his match with the denim clad, trucker cap sporting J.T. Walsh.

Everything about the 90s go-to arse-hole, Walsh, oozes an attitude of "I could not give two healthy fucks about you". He is such an unbridled delight to watch being mean and shouty with everyone. He had a career that spanned over 20 years and yet, despite being burned forever into our brain as a malevolent son-of-a-bitch, his reign of playing villains really only ran from 1987's Good Morning Vietnam to his tragic death in 1999. Just 12 years but he made every single squinty eye, sweaty brow, snarled insult and pursed lip count. 

The movie is splendidly directed with a keen eye on the rugged Americana of it all but also a sturdy, uncomplicated, understanding of how to tell a story, build tension and shoot action without waving and shaking the camera around like a spasmodic gibbon. It's an age old gripe from me, I know, but the biggest failing of straight-to-video thrillers these days - that hope to ape the strong, simplicity of a classic like Breakdown - is they can't film a simple conversation without epilepticly wobbling the camera around like the operator is bursting for a pee. It may sound like old man "get off my lawn" moaning but go back to a film like Breakdown, made by a director you probably wouldn't know if you tripped over him in the street, and marvel at the excellent storytelling ability of such a film. 

Speaking of Jonathan Mostow, the director of Breakdown, he sadly would never follow up this success with anything that comes close. The re-writing of history, submarine, war movie U-571, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and the Bruce Willis sci-fi dud Surrogates are the sort of stunningly average, flawed and run-of-the-mill Hollywood dreck that most wouldn't want on their resume. However, you only have to make one classic to be celebrated forever and, for me, Breakdown is it. So Mostow gets a pass from me, even a one-hit-wonder is worth humming from time to time.

Breakdown feels like a 70s movie and, more than that, it feels like a 70s Ozploitation movie in a weird way - maybe it's the dessert road setting, I don't know. It's a lean, economical, thrilling, tense and engaging film with a dynamite cast and some strong, but not showy, direction. If you haven't seen it, I can't urge you enough to track it down and give it a watch.

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