ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 15, 1997
By Steve Newton
The scariest breakdown I ever had occurred about 10 years ago on a Granville Bridge on-ramp during afternoon rush hour. My ’68 Polara with the busted fuel gauge ran out of gas halfway up the curving incline to the bridge, and I had to frantically back the dead beater down and around while freaked-out drivers bringing up the rear swerved to avoid saying howdy to my sizeable hunk of American metal.
I was feeling pretty rattled by the time I manœuvred the sitting duck out of harm’s way, but compared to what the guy in Breakdown goes through when his vehicle conks out, my fast-beating heart would have instantly qualified me for Wuss of the Year.
Kurt Russell portrays Jeff Taylor, an average guy with an average name, whom we meet while he and his wife, Amy (Apollo 13’s Kathleen Quinlan), are moving from Boston to San Diego to start a new life together. To make the trip, the couple has invested heavily in a shiny new Jeep Grand Cherokee, and although the fine set of wheels is well-suited to a lengthy road trip, it also attracts the attention of a four-man gang of criminal scumbuckets, led by two-faced trucker Red Barr (J.T. Walsh).
When the Taylors’ sabotaged vehicle breaks down on a desolate stretch of desert highway, Amy catches a ride in Barr’s 18-wheeler to phone for mechanical help, and before you can say “The Vanishing”—or “the remake of The Vanishing”—she vanishes. Although Breakdown certainly resembles a compacted version of George Sluizer’s Americanized remake of his 1988 Dutch/French psychothriller, it actually owes a lot more to The Hitcher in terms of tone, atmosphere, and execution. Sequences from that ’86 action thriller—C. Thomas Howell sprinting between trailers at a truck stop, or barely avoiding a head-on collision—are duplicated, with Russell now playing the put-upon protagonist.
But what it lacks in originality, Breakdown makes up for with fierce action, nail-biting suspense, and some fine performances. Walsh—who was so creepily effective as the chair-dragging asylum perv in Sling Blade—reaches new levels of loathsomeness, and his transformation from Good Samaritan to sicko slimebag is a fine piece of work. M.C. Gainey and Jack Noseworthy also hit the mark as Barr’s brutal cohorts Earl and Billy, whose degenerate mentalities make it easy to sympathize with Russell’s initially vulnerable, ordinary Joe.
The aim of Breakdown is to get the audience thirsting madly for the blood of its villains, and by show’s end it achieves that primal goal. I, for one, got so caught up in the righteous vengeance-seeking that even the climax’s Schwarzenegger-type coup de grâce didn’t seem all that far-fetched.