Blu-ray review: “Breakdown” (1997)

“Breakdown” (1997)

Thriller

Running time: 93 minutes

Written and Directed by: Jonathan Mostow

Featuring: Kurt Russell, J. T. Walsh and Kathleen Quinlan

Red Barr: “Now, before you get any half-baked ideas about calling in the cavalry, just remember we’re gonna be watching you every step of the way. And we’ll be listening to our police scanners. And if we see anything unusual, an unmarked car or truck, or if we see you talking to anyone who even remotely smells like a cop… well, you can just keep your fucking money, Jeff, and I’ll keep your wife. And I’ll mail you pieces of her from time to time.”

Released recently on Blu-ray for the first time on the Imprint label is the late 1990s thriller “Breakdown” (1997) featuring Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan as a put upon husband and wife, that echoes the Speilberg movie “Duel” (1971) as well the 1980s “The Hitcher” (1986) but only as homage as “Breakdown” has not only an element of originality but an A list cast that breathe new life into this sub-genre.

When “Breakdown” was produced in the late 1990s the idea of an adult thriller made on location with a modest budget was not out of the ordinary, indeed casting these movies with well known actors was also not unusual, which made them all the more enjoyable as these stars were normally acting against their own well crafted images, think Michael Keaton in the underrated “Pacific Heights” (1990), Tom Berenger in “Shattered” (1991) and of course Kurt Russell in this terrific action/thriller. The other element was that they had some major creative force so in the aforementioned movies the directors were the legendary John Schlesinger and Wolfgang Peterson, in “Breakdown” there was a rising a rising talent in the form of Jonathan Mostow who has a singular creative vision that is apparent in all his movies.

“Breakdown” is based around Jeff Taylor and his wife Amy who are driving cross-country from Boston to San Diego in their new Jeep Grand Cherokee. Jeff narrowly avoids colliding with a beat-up truck. Later, at a gas station, Earl, the truck driver, confronts Jeff and they exchange hostile words. Shortly after the couple resume their journey, their car breaks down on a vacant road. Leaving Jeff with the Jeep, Amy accepts a ride from a passing big rig trucker to get to a nearby diner and call for help. Jeff eventually discovers that someone has tampered with the Jeep’s battery connections. After reconnecting them, he drives to the diner, only to discover that no one has seen Amy. When he sees the trucker on the road and forces him to stop, the trucker claims he has never seen Jeff or Amy. From here the movie shifts gear from low key drama to a ride through the midwest and the action steadily climbs to a tense stand-off which is handled extremely well.

This was not writer/director Jonathan Mostow’s first movie, it was in fact his third but it was his introduction to studio, big budget, star powered movie making and he handles himself incredibly well with both the intimate dialogue scenes, the confrontational aspects of the movie and of course the action set pieces of which there are more than a few ranging ranging from minor to the huge with a section on a bridge that heightens tension and brings “Breakdown” to its conclusion. In the intervening years Mostow has not risen to the heights that may have been on the horizon in the late 1990s but he has been behind some very good and competent movies including a widely derided ‘Terminator’ sequel and the excellent and still popular World War II drama “U-571” (2000).

This movie is led by the always charismatic and talented Kurt Russell who is in fine form and at the height of his popularity, although I would argue he is a perennially popular actor who shines onscreen. However the key ingredient is one of the truly great character actor J. T. Walsh who died not long after this movie was released with it being one of a handful of final performances. There are many character actors working but Walsh had a huge range and this shows in his career, in his many roles he had to share the screen with truly great leading actors but always managed to hold his own and add to any scene he was in. In fact I would go so far as to say he was the leading character actor in Hollywood up to his death and his loss was felt for years as he died young and prematurely. In this movie he has to play a variety of emotions all the while disguising his true intentions until the third act, which is something in itself.

In the 1990s there was a thriving movie industry with many distinct tiers, what I mean by that is that there were movies budgeted at many levels from micro budgets to huge budgets and everything in between. What this meant was mid ranged movies could made and make a modest box office while having an extended life on video, later DVD. However that has all but disappeared with either low budgeted independent movies or huge blockbusters with anything in between all but disappearing which can be traced to the disappearance of a home video market and the rise and rise of streaming. The direct result is that it is rare to have original plots, mid level budgets and new talents being seen in cinemas because that is not what drives mass audiences and creates perceived franchises.

With the decline of true mass market physical media such as video and DVD (not forgetting blu-ray) it is surprising too see what is released on blu-ray especially in the relatively small Australasian market. But there is a dirty little secret in that physical media still has a place in that the quality from a Blu-ray Disc or even a 4K disc is overall better than any streaming service. This means that consumers will still spend money on a quality movie and a quality transfer and disc which is proven by the fact that a movie that made US$50 million at the box office is being given the treatment it deserves. I recommend this movie highly especially for those that are fans of Kurt Russell, he shines here. It is also a quality movie that deserves a third go round, it has aged remarkably well even with the jumps in technology.

Special Features

  • 1080p high definition presentation from a 4K scan by Paramount Pictures
  • NEW Audio Commentary by Film Critic Peter Tonguette (2020)
  • NEW “IT’S GONNA COST YOU: MAKING BREAKDOWN” – A new in-depth interview with writer/director Jonathan Mostow (2020)
  • NEW “THE TRAP IS SET: INSIDE THE STUNTS” – A new interview with stunt coordinator M. James Arnett (2020)
  • NEW “WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME: REMEMBERING BASIL POLEDOURIS” – A new interview with musician Eric Colvin about his time working with composer Basil Poledouris (2020)
  • NEW  “Life is Jeep: Breakdown and the Psychology of the Road”  A Visual Essay by Ian Mantgani (2020)
  • NEW Interview with film Critic Tim Robey (2020)
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • DTS HD 5.1 surround
  • LPCM 2.0 Stereo
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Theatrical Trailer

One thought on “Blu-ray review: “Breakdown” (1997)

  1. scifimike70

    Breakdown was a most refreshing film as a reminder of how even the most down-to-basics thrillers could still have great impacts in the 1990s. J. T. Walsh was quite a remarkable actor. I first saw him in Good Morning Vietnam, Tequila Sunrise and House Of Games. He made Red Barr into one of our most unforgettable villains of the cinema. Thanks for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

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