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'Breakdown': Heck on Wheels

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 2, 1997

In "Breakdown," Kurt Russell tries to get maximally mad but he ends up playing the road wuss. Assailed by a tribe of cowboy truckers, he has to devolve to savagery to survive, but can't quite convince us he's tapped his inner warrior. His lack of energy afflicts the film as much as its director's lack of ideas.

The movie's surrender to banality is all the more dispiriting because it gets off to such a good start. Initially, it seems spliced together from two chilling classics, George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" (the original Belgian version from 1988, not the idiotic American remake) and, years before, Steven Spielberg's made-for-TV "Duel," about a psychopathic but entirely anonymous truck set on erasing a mild-mannered traveling salesman.

Set in the bleak, hardscrabble Southwest, "Breakdown" follows two tenderfeet -- Jeff Taylor (Russell) and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) -- on their pilgrimage toward new beginnings in a brand new Jeep Cherokee that's as red as blood in the water.

There's something about the boldness of the car and the meekness of the man that sends out vibrations of distress. At a gas station, a gigantic cowboy (M.C. Gainey) named Earl menaces him. When Jeff backs down from Earl's aggressions, he marks himself as prey.

Soon enough the Jeep has mysteriously broken down, deserting the Easterners in a landscape only John Ford could love and only John Wayne could master. The director, a first-feature guy named Jonathan Mostow, gets the best performance in the film out of the vast, crackly dry deserts, the scutes of barren mountain and the vault of pure blue sky. At that moment, its pitiful characters dwarfed by everything as they cower on the floor of nowhere, the movie taps into total eeriness.

Along comes the reliably creepy J.T. Walsh, his affability always masking nastiness. He's a seemingly helpful truckie named Red Barr who offers to help, then to drive Amy on to the next roadside attraction to call a tow truck. The idiot husband thinks this is peachy. When the truck vanishes off the horizon, Amy has vanished off the Earth.

The film is at its best evoking the vanishing and Jeff's sense of helpless paranoia. He can get no one to believe him and all the townies -- they look like extras still in costume from "The Wild Bunch" -- regard him as suspicious.

When Jeff manages to find the truck and flag down the sheriff, Red's steely fortitude -- ball-bearing eyes and deadpan expression -- prove unbreachable by conventional law enforcement techniques. Walsh makes this bad boy seem like a real bull-goose, hard-core piece of work.

But from that moment, the movie squanders the considerable energy it has developed.

The plot behind these manipulations proves disappointingly thin -- that's all? you're thinking -- and soon enough Jeff's various escapes and his solution to the enigma become the usual movie chutes-and-ladders game. He does a lot of running around while making desperate faces, but he never projects a sense of deep rage. He never gets dangerous. Thus the movie is shorn of its one primitive gratification: the image of the civilized man who finds the Peruvian commando inside himself and lays waste to louts who have underestimated him.

The lighter-than-air Russell is bad enough; the surprise in "Breakdown" is that even Walsh blurs to nothingness as the movie progresses. He was more profoundly unsettling in four quiet minutes at the beginning and end of "Sling Blade," where his unctuous sexual sociopath shriveled your socks, than he is in an hour or so of loud screen time here. Once he's reduced to routine action bad guy, his peculiar nasty magic -- that seedy creepiness, that sense of calm control, those placid, opaque eyes -- is what really vanishes from the picture.

To be fair, Mostow is able to provide a last few minutes of rousing vehicle slapstick, as Russell ends up in a truck-on-truck duel with the crazed big guy. This would work much better if Russell's sudden expertise were some reflection of character development. It just feels arbitrary as it is. Still, as spectacle, the long chase sequence works, at least as a percussion solo that accelerates your respiratory rate. Watching trucks play musical chairs on an ever-narrowing mountain road is another cheap melody of the movies, and "Breakdown" at least hums a few bars.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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