Breakdown is a very good, tense thriller that makes very few mistakes. From the beginning, the movie grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.
Other reviewers have compared Breakdown to The Vanishing, an excellent Dutch-French thriller, remade (poorly, so I hear) under the same name in America. The story is similar to The Vanishing, and by comparison, Breakdown is not as good. But Breakdown is not The Vanishing, and on its own terms, it excels.
Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) are driving from Massachusetts to California. They make it as far as Arizona before their brand-new Jeep breaks down. Amy catches a ride to the nearest phone booth with a friendly trucker, then disappears completely.
A bit of luck leads Jeff to the very truck that was supposed to have taken Amy to the diner. He stops the truck and questions the driver, who claims never to have met him before in his life. Another bit of luck brings the local police to the scene. The cop listens to each man’s story, searches the truck, then, finding no incriminating evidence, sends the trucker on his way.
Jeff, now confused, frustrated and angry, heads back to the diner to demand some answers. But nobody’s talking there, either. He’s about to call the police again when a local feeb drops a clue. Jeff follows the tip and starts tracking down the kidnappers.
Kurt Russell gives a seamless performance as the frustrated husband. His performance, combined with a well-timed screenplay, elicits empathy from the audience. When he is afraid, we fear for him. When he gets the upper hand, we are righteously pissed too. Also, Russell comes off as a regular guy. That is to say, he does not come across as some wisecracking action-movie hero. Though there are action sequences, this is not an action movie; it’s a thriller. Russell realizes this and plays his role accordingly.
But since it came up, I have to say that the action sequences are top notch. One sequence involves Jeff holding on to, and moving around in the undercarriage of a moving semi. The sequence is genuinely tense without coming off as a superhuman feat. Another sequence involves two cars and a semi chasing a utility truck. The driving stunts appear to be genuine which not only adds to the tension, but is a refreshing change in this age of sterile, computer-animated action scenes.
The action scenes bothered some critics. They say that the movie is ambiguous: that it tries to be both a thriller and an action movie. Comparing it to The Vanishing, they are right. But as I said, Breakdown is not The Vanishing.
The Vanishing has a dark, psychological ending. Breakdown has an explosive physical ending. Perhaps this is the difference between French and American cinema. I like both, but neither should be the standard by which the other is judged.
A few other details struck me as particularly well thought out.
First, the villains are not dumb or reactive. They have their own motives and schemes, which makes the story much more complex and interesting. What appears to be coincidence is often careful planning on the part of the villains.
Second, the last real dialog in the movie is a few minutes back from the end. There is nothing anyone could have said to make the ending any better or more meaningful, so Mostow gives us a few moments to react to the story and to “come down” from the tension. There is some ambient sound, but music doesn’t even come up on the credits for several seconds. It’s a nice rest after a loud and tense 90 minutes.
There are a few flaws in the movie. They certainly don’t overshadow the movie’s strengths, but I will mention them in the spirit of fairness.
For example, the kidnappers had Jeff exactly where they wanted him about halfway through the movie. The right action on their part could have guaranteed their victory. The reason for their inaction is never revealed. [On second thought, and after a reasoned explanation from my brother, I realize “the right action” could have been the wrong action. That’s one less flaw with the movie.]
Also, the kidnappers, though smart, were a bit stereotyped. Someone else aptly compared them to the inbred hicks from Deliverance. Also, their operation didn’t seem big enough to justify the magnitude of their crimes. The risks didn’t seem to be worth the rewards (though this could be my flawed view distorted by other, more exaggerated movies).
These are minor flaws, though, in an otherwise engrossing and riveting movie.