Back in 1997, Breakdown wasn’t my – or any of my friends’ – first choice when we saw it one Saturday evening at a shopping-mall multiplex in suburban Johannesburg. Whatever shinier blockbuster we had planned to see was sold out. By a process of elimination, factoring in what others had already seen and what a group of 14 year olds could credibly buy tickets for, the sweaty-looking Kurt Russell road thriller with the blunt, unsexy title was the compromise pick. We went in armed with popcorn and moderate enthusiasm. We emerged unexpectedly and excitedly buzzing: the “Oh, let’s just see something” option, as it turned, really was something to see.
I don’t even remember what our first choice was, or if I ever saw it in the end. I do, however, remember Breakdown, fondly and frequently: all too often it’s the film I wish I were viewing for the first time as I sit down to see another Hollywood action spectacle succumb to narrative bloat and synthetic CGI overload. The first theatrical feature by writer-director Jonathan Mostow – he had made an ignoble straight-to-video debut, Beverly Hills Bodysnatchers, in 1989 – Breakdown was throwback entertainment even 23 years ago. A studio film with the lean proportions and demands of a 1950s B-movie, with a dependable but faintly on-the-turn leading man, it looked a modest offering beside its blockbuster rivals that spring, including Volcano, The Fifth Element and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Yet it topped the US box office for a week that May, fending off Austin Powers for the No 1 spot, en route to a $50m gross on a $36m budget: not exactly a smash, but a solid outcome for a small, largely effects-free genre film that doesn’t reach standard levels of Hollywood bluster until one raucous, 11th-hour car chase that still looks pretty restrained in the era of Fast & Furious [Insert Digit Here].
Put another way, it was a little engine that could, hinging on a little engine that couldn’t. The setup is savagely clean and quick, indicative of the wholly fat-free proceedings to come. Boston yuppies Jeff (Kurt Russell) and Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are driving cross-country to set up a new life in San Diego; in a parched stretch of southwestern John Ford desert, they have a near-collision with a local pickup truck and a menacing altercation with its hick drivers at the next petrol station. A few miles on down the remote highway, their engine cuts out; friendly passing trucker Red (JT Walsh) offers to give them a ride to the next diner to call for help. Amy goes, while Jeff stays to mind the car. Turns out he’s guarding the wrong thing: she disappears, and when he catches up with Red, the trucker denies any knowledge of their previous encounter.
This is all accomplished in 20 hot, brisk minutes, during which time Mostow’s film cheerfully recalls a wide range of other thriller styles, all of them good: there’s gaslighting suspense of the Hitchcockian variety, townie-versus-redneck friction straight out of Deliverance, the minimalist tarmac menace of Spielberg’s Duel, and even the eerie, godless ambiguity of George Sluizer’s art-horror The Vanishing (the spirit of which this initially honours rather better than Sluizer’s rubbish US remake from 1993).
Given all these genre roads to take, it winds up wending its own zig-zag route across them all, only at considerable speed. The initial mystery gives way to nail-digging survival drama, but the tension holds, as Russell’s chino-clad beta male morphs into a never-say-die action man of the most tenacious order. “It could happen to you,” threatened the film’s poster tagline, which you can buy up to a point: by the time he’s clinging to the underside of a speeding long-haul truck and clawing his way up the carriage, you have to conclude that it probably couldn’t. Still, Russell’s earnestly clenched, intrinsically decent performance – pulsing and perspiring in such ideal contrast to the late, great Walsh’s unflappable, silver-eyed villain – keeps you in his tight corner to the ludicrous end.
Best of all, it’s all wrapped up in 93 minutes, not flagging for one of them, yet not leaving you in need of one more. Breakdown is a modern B-movie that knows its size and station: a rare commodity at a time when Hollywood’s fast-car romps now sprawl as luxuriantly as The English Patient. Mostow went on to bigger things, if not better ones: 2000’s U-571 was an accomplished if anonymous second world war submarine drama, while 2003’s Terminator 3 kicked off a painfully protracted franchise decline. The less said about his 2009 Bruce Willis vehicle Surrogates, the better; nobody has anything to say, meanwhile, about the 2017 Sam Worthington thriller Hunter’s Prayer, which made a grand total of $88,696.
He’ll always have Breakdown, though, and so will we. Nobody talks about it much these days, yet when you prod people’s memories, it often wakes dormant affection of the “oh yeah, I liked that one” variety. It’s the kind of happy 90s memory you all too often hope to find free to stream and don’t, as their back catalogue dwindles. Finding out they actually have it triggers another old, familiar memory: the feeling of finding your chosen video hasn’t yet been checked out at Blockbusters. Make it your first choice.
Breakdown is available on Amazon Prime in the US and Netflix in the UK