Film of the week: Breakdown

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Sometimes when I’m watching old films at home with the folks I feel it’s out of a sense of duty. Who else from my generation for example would watch Tom Selleck without a moustache or Brian Dennehy being sinister if not me?

These are made for TV movies however. The likes of Ike & To Catch a Killer are cheaply produced, low risk ventures that rarely end up hurting feelings or studio execs wallets.

Somewhere between these and the tent pole blockbusters there are worthy films to be had however. B movies that are upwardly mobile with notions of greatness. Manys a career has been launched in this way. Or in the case of Breakdown perhaps relaunched.

Kurt Russell might not have been born into Hollywood royalty but he surely would struggle to remember a time when he wasn’t surrounded by all the bells and whistles of production . His uncredited debut came in an Elvis movie at the age of twelve but I remember seeing him in an episode of The Fugitive where he can’t have been much older.

As the decades rolled on he remained a staple of television programming and the darling of domestic Walt Disney output. A lot of this stuff was before my time and I’m unlikely to catch up on it now. But we can safely say he had a good grounding before what was his undoubted big Hollywood break with the The Thing in 1982.

After this turn as a Kristofferson doppleganger in the snow covered Antarctic, Russell had confirmed his abilities as a potential leading man. John Carpenter went back to him a few times afterwards( Escape from New York, LA and Big Trouble in Little China) He also worked with Meryl Streep in Silkwood, Mel Gibson in Tequila Sunrise, Stallone in Tango and Cash not to mention teaming up with his long term partner Goldie Hawn in Overboard.

The nineties saw more hits come along. Backdraft in 1991, Unlawful Entry 1992, Tombstone 1993, Stargate 1994 and Executive Decision 1996. Nothing that would give Ingmar Bergman sleepless nights but all made good money nonetheless.

But here is where it got hairy. In 1998 a film finally arrived in theatres called Soldier. It was at that time one of the biggest box office flops ever produced and almost certainly would have killed off Russell’s claims as the blued eyed American hero of blockbuster cinema.

That Breakdown came out before it is perhaps the flaw in my argument, until you realise Soldier was in production first. The sci fi opus had actually been in development for 15 years at this stage and only when Russell agreed to sign on in 1996 could they go ahead.

Director Paul Anderson(no, not that one, the other one) is quoted as saying that Kurt decided to commit to intensive physical training before cameras rolled. This fascinates me. Sure you want to look your best but surely he must have known the script was a dog at that point. Guess there’s some things Imdb can’t tell you.

Either way it is my opinion that Russell was worried. He had his box office radar on and couldn’t see a happy ending for Soldier. So after a quick look around the Screenplay super store he managed to spot Breakdown. It’s a quick enough shoot and turnaround and it makes good in the cinemas and the long and successful career of one of Hollywood’s golden boys carries on.

Think I’m wrong? That with the dates and everything else it just doesn’t make sense? Fine, go ahead and watch Breakdown again. Look at everybody’s clothes. Okay so maybe Russell and his wife would have nice clean clobber; they are on their way from Boston and wanting to make a fresh start. But then look at the Canadian tuxedo JT Walsh is sporting. Not a spec of dust. Could it be that this whole production had a small window of opportunity to get done and nobody on set had the time to age the clothes? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe JT just liked to look clean.

Anyway the film itself is based on a very decent Jonathan Mostow script and basically tells the age old story of city slickers offending simpler world weary folk and paying the penalty. Russell plays Jeff, who in his new red Jeep Wrangler that he still owes money on, is driving to San Francisco  with his wife Amy in the hopes of getting a new job and leaving his woes behind him. In a split second of distraction Jeff almost crashes into a big black pickup truck, waking his slumbering wife in the process. So sets off a chain of Hitchcockian events that do little to disprove that Democrats don’t like blaming themselves for anything and that you really shouldn’t let your wife take a lift from a trucker in the desert.

I watched this with a great appreciation for the craftsmanship of mid 1990s filmmaking. Around this point in time stuntmen and women were at the top of their game and the foreboding presence of all that cgi in Titanic was still considered by many to being an anomaly.

Looking back on it now, it seems a bit tired, a bit lacking in real sheen. The music is nondescript and everyone involved seem a bit preoccupied. Like as if they know they don’t have more than three red jeeps to destroy or that JT Walsh is getting on a plane first thing in the morning and the first or second take of this scene will have to do(JT I’m sure was golden every time, I’m more pointing the finger at the director)

Of course time waits for no man and maybe it was around this time that Kurt maybe realised that the action hero schtick had probably passed him by.

In the years that followed he has been in numerous projects that have provided him with more challenging work. This year he’ll do what everyone else does nowadays and star in a Marvel movie: playing Chris Pratt’s dad in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Proof, if it was even needed, that Kurt Russell is now proudly an elder statesman of the Hollywood set.

Unfortunately we said goodbye to JT a few years back and as such were deprived of his perpetual excellence. If you’re ever feeling nostalgic I suggest The Grifters or The Negotiator for further viewing.

As for Breakdown well I had seen it a couple of years ago ago and maybe once was enough. Anyway, it’s still pretty good, better than Soldier anyway.

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