Throughout the quarantine, I have been playing a regular online poker game once a week. I like to throw a mindless action movie on in the background as I play. It got me thinking about mindFUL action movies that are out there. Inception, the best of that group in my mind, is also a bit more than an action movie to me, so I thought I would focus this month on a hidden gem from the action movie genre. I am talking about Breakdown (1997, dir. Jonathan Mostow).
Breakdown has a fairly simple plot. A couple (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) are moving across the country and taking the scenic route driving from Boston to San Diego. Along the way, they nearly have an accident with another driver who then confronts them at a gas station. Shortly after this confrontation, the couple’s car breaks down. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with no cell signal (Remember 1997 when no cell signal was more common? Simpler times.), they flag down a passing trucker (lifetime bad guy JT Walsh) for assistance. He offers to drive them to a nearby diner to use the payphone and call a tow truck. (For you kids out there, a payphone is a thing that used to be on many street corners where you could insert coins to make a phone call. Back then, sometimes people would memorize important phone numbers. Simpler times.) Russell stays with the car and Quinlan goes off with Walsh. Eventually, it turns out this was not a series of unrelated events and Quinlan has actually been kidnapped and is being held for ransom.
Why I feel this is an underrated action film is that, from the moment Quinlan gets in that truck – the action virtually never stops while also never really being about high-speed pursuits and explosions. (See? Not all action movies have to be exclusively stuff blowing up to remain interesting. Simpler times.) It is about maintaining a certain level of pace and action that reminds me of Argo. You probably wouldn’t call Argo an action movie, but you’ll feel tense for the majority of that film, which is what Breakdown achieves as well. The other great element of this film to me is that Russell never becomes a superhero just because he is the protagonist. He reacts to situations much like I feel an everyday human would. He comes up with plans that work a little and fail a little. He reacts to this foreign situation in imperfect ways. His desperation grows as he tries to figure out who to trust and how to save his wife. Some may consider this a weakness of the film, but I consider that its strongest point. I hate when action movie protagonists are average Joes from the start and then become James Bond when put under adversity.
Sure, there are some weaknesses to the film. We never really find out the motives behind the bad guys. They just seem to be greedy villains with low moral code (including kidnapping and at least attempted murder), but there is no grand purpose to their evil, which weakens them as characters. As in all action movies, a modicum of luck is required to make things happen as we need them to. We also learn the bad guys have done this several times – presumably near the same area – yet the small town police force seems to be not even a little bit concerned that something illegal may be happening.
It’s not perfect by any means, but if you are looking for action of a slightly different variety, Breakdown is well worth your 93 minutes. You won’t be disappointed in the ride.
JustWatch says you can stream Breakdown on Amazon Prime, Showtime, DirecTV, and Sling, and it is available for rent/purchase on virtually all the other platforms.