Release Date(s)1997 (September 21, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Paramount Presents #26)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
Watching Breakdown, I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. In both films, a character mysteriously disappears, leading to attempts to find out what happened and locate the missing person. Both films rely on the build-up of suspense to drive the plot.
Massachusetts couple Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan) are driving through the deserts of the Southwest when their car breaks down. A truck driver (J.T. Walsh) stops and offers them a ride to the diner up ahead, where they can call for a tow truck. Jeff decides to stay with the car and Amy accepts the offer so she can phone road service.
Later, Jeff arrives at the diner and is told that no one there has seen his wife. Thinking he and Amy got their messages crossed, he heads for the next town but spots the truck along the road and stops it, asking the driver what happened to his wife. The driver denies ever having seen her. A deputy sheriff passing by questions the trucker, who again claims that he’s never seen the woman. A search of the truck turns up nothing, leaving Jeff confused, frightened, and angry.
As Jeff continues trying to figure out what could have happened to Amy, it becomes clear that a well-orchestrated plan involving many of the locals has targeted the couple. Jeff is left alone both to extricate himself from a plot in which he becomes an unwilling participant and to locate Amy.
Director Jonathan Mostow has fashioned a taut mystery thriller that manages to stay several steps ahead of the viewer. Amy’s disappearance and Jeff’s frustrated attempts to find her create real suspense. Jeff is a northerner driving a fancy car, making him a prime mark for the predators. Clearly a fish out of water, he is at the mercy of those who intend to manipulate him for personal gain, and the fact that they are lethal adds to the drama.
Russell conveys Jeff’s desperation, anger, and even frenzy in a strange environment as he realizes he alone can rescue Amy. Jeff is not an action hero, so we can identify with his dilemma. An average, law-abiding guy, he’s up against seemingly insurmountable forces, yet he perseveres, often at great risk to himself.
Russell’s Jeff acquires a degree of bravado and daring that owes more to the writer’s imagination than to probability. Initially loathe to get into a confrontation and willing to back off rather than engage, Jeff turns exceptionally athletic and intensely aggressive in the final third of the movie. Yes, the stakes are high and he has gone through obstacle after obstacle to find Amy, but would he realistically transform into a wild-eyed, capable avenger in one day?
As with many Hollywood thrillers, the plot of Breakdown relies on convenient coincidences, unlikely occurrences, and other devices that stretch credibility, but the film offers a wild ride and we go along. There are exciting vehicle stunts and chases and plenty of surly characters to keep things breathless and unpredictable. Performances are uniformly excellent. Director Mostow transforms the expansive southwestern desert from a place of rugged beauty to a location of lethal foreboding.
The 26th title in the Paramount Presents Blu-ray line features 1080p resolution in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1. This edition, approved by director Jonathan Mostow, is a remaster from a new 4K scan. Picture quality overall is outstanding, with no distracting imperfections, making for a first-class viewing experience. Details are beautifully delineated, including the desert expanse, dimly-lit diner, sweat on Russell’s face, and grain in wooden surfaces. Color palette tends toward bright, sun-drenched hues for the exteriors with their sandy, yellow and brown earth tones dominating. Jeff’s Jeep Cherokee is, significantly, a rich red, drawing the attention of less-than friendly locals. Skin tones look natural, and blacks are deep and rich.
Audio options include English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD and French 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles include English, English SDH, and French. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout, mostly emanating from the front center channel. The surround effect is not overly pronounced but nicely tracks left-to-right and right-to-left movement of on-screen vehicles. The 18-wheeler that figures prominently roars along the highway, intimidating in its sheer size and power. Sound effects abound in the chase sequences when metal scraping against metal, skidding tires, and overturning vehicles enhance the visual effects. Pistol and shotgun fire are “sweetened” for dramatic oomph. Basil Poledouris’ musical score appropriately amps up the excitement.
Bonus materials include a new Filmmaker Focus featurette, an audio commentary, Kathleen Quinlan’s reminiscences about making the film, an interview with co-producer Martha De Laurentiis, an isolated musical score audio track, trailers, and a slipcase foldout featuring the film’s original poster. A Digital code is included on a paper within the packaging.
Audio Commentary – Director Jonathan Mostow and actor Kurt Russell share this commentary. Dino Di Laurentiis is described as an old-school producer who loved and cared about movies. When a backstory for Jeff and Amy was deemed necessary, another writer added to Mostow’s screenplay, but it was ultimately found unnecessary and deleted. The director believes that “character is revealed through behavior.” Russell comments that the actors playing bad guys were actually pleasant, easygoing people. Mostow wanted to be sure that at all times the characters were making the right decisions based on the circumstances they faced. There was trouble casting the role of Amy because the character appears for only a few minutes at the beginning of the film, then disappears until the last few scenes. Kathleen Quinlan committed to the role after reading only ten pages of the script because she was involved, as a nominee, with getting ready for the Academy Awards presentations. An FBI agent told Mostow that it was difficult for law enforcement to search for a person over the age of 18 who is reported missing. This information was the springboard for the story, whose "concept was air tight,” according to Mostow. Both Mostow and Russell had J.T. Walsh in mind for the trucker because “he seamlessly blends into every movie.” The director and actor briefly discuss the difference between editing with actual film and editing digitally. In an early version of the script, there was a secondary character that Mostow had in mind for Morgan Freeman, but this character was eliminated along with considerable dialogue. Russell notes that when the writing is strong and there’s nothing extraneous, it makes playing a role easier. The last scene is reminiscent of action movies of the 1970s. It was shot in pieces, with editing making it look authentic. No computer-generated images were used, though some shots utilized miniatures.
Filmmaker Focus: Director Jonathan Mostow on Breakdown (10:46) – Mostow had to shift gears when a planned film based on a Stephen King story fell through. He wanted to write a film set in the desert with trucks, and decided to come up with a modern story about the mysterious disappearance of a character. He completed the script for in three weeks and wanted Kurt Russell for the lead because of the actor’s ability to communicate without dialogue. J.T. Walsh was Mostow’s first choice to play the trucker because he was capable of playing individuals across many genres. Working out the car chases was “like choreographing a ballet for elephants.” Models and storyboards were used in planning the climactic car chase. Russell, described by Mostow as a “laid back chill guy,” did all his own stunts. Not wanting to be away from his family for a long shoot, Russell received daily round-trip private air transportation from filming locations in Utah and Nevada to his Los Angeles home. The reviews for the film were very good and it opened at number one at the box office.
Victory Is Hers: Kathleen Quinlan on Breakdown (4:22) – Quinlan felt the chemistry between Kurt Russell and herself was instrumental in making their on-screen relationship believable. Producer Dino Di Laurentiis wanted to provide Quinlan with a wardrobe by designer Armani but she felt it would be inappropriate for a woman making a cross-country journey. Martha Di Laurentiis was very approachable and “easy to talk to.” Russell makes acting look easy, but he demands a certain degree of perfection. She recalls Jonathan Mostow as a quiet director who let her find her own performance with only minor suggestions. Jeff was originally supposed to release the gear that plunged the truck into the river, but Amy was eventually given that key action.
A Brilliant Partnership: Martha Di Laurentiis on Breakdown (8:18) – Co-producer Martha Di Laurentiis wanted to do a road movie, liked Jonathan Mostow’s script, and was determined to get a top cast and secure a decent budget. The film is based on the question, “You’re alone on a lonely road. What happens?” Dino Di Laurentiis needed a star and contacted Kurt Russell. Russell initially thanked the producer and declined, saying he didn’t want to be away from his family for a long feature film shoot. Di Laurentiis agreed to provide private jet transportation and helicopters to get him to and from the set each day. Though Russell’s performance might vary slightly from one take to the next, he always “performed correctly on every single take.” Russell felt that using a stand-in for the stunts would be cheating the audience. The company was constantly on the move. “We were in a different location every day.”
Alternate Opening (11:40) – This sequence shows Jeff as a news cameraman in a war-torn Central American country witnessing the death of a woman by a sniper. Returning home to his wife Amy, he discusses his disenchantment with the job and they make plans to move from Massachusetts to California.
Alternate Opening with Commentary (11:54) – Director Jonathan Mostow explains that the studio and a second writer felt a backstory was necessary so the audience could get to know Jeff and Amy. Mostow objected but agreed to shoot the scenes provided that two test screenings would be held, one with the backstory footage, the other without. After watching both versions with an audience, the studio executives agreed that the version without the backstory was better, and that’s the version released to theaters.
Isolated Score – The Basil Poledouris musical score is heard as the film plays without dialogue, ambient sound, or sound effects.
Trailers – Three theatrical trailers are included:
- Breakdown (2:10)
- Kiss the Girls (2:17)
- Hard Rain (2:23)
Breakdown is an exciting, suspenseful thriller that resonates with the audience. We wonder how we would handle the sudden disappearance of a loved one when alone and without support. The Taylors’ cross-country journey becomes a never-ending living nightmare. The film’s tag line “It could happen to you” rings true.
- Dennis Seuling