Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Starring Kurt Russell, J.t. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan. (1997, R, 97 min.)

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., May 2, 1997

Breakdown further illustrates the axiom that every truly original movie must be remade again and again until it achieves a state of sublime, all-encompassing idiocy. Actually, since it's still possible to imagine a dimmer stepchild of George Sluizer's coldly mesmerizing 1988 thriller, Spoorloos (which Sluizer remade five years later as the compromised but still effective The Vanishing starring Jeff Bridges), what we have here is probably just the midpoint of the devolution process. The '93 film -- along with Steven Spielberg's Duel -- provides most of the early inspiration, in terms of both theme and atmosphere. Things get underway when travelers Jeff and Amy Taylor (Russell and Quinlan) have car trouble on a godforsaken Southwestern desert highway. A genial-seeming trucker (Walsh) happens along, and Jeff decides to stand guard over his beloved red Cherokee while his wife hitches a ride to the nearest pay phone. But when Jeff manages to fix the car and drive to the remote cafe where Amy was to call a wrecker, none of the patrons remember anyone fitting her description. The psychological screws tighten further when the trucker, whom the now half-crazed Jeff flags down on the road, professes never to have met him before. After the local cops all but brush him off, it's left to Taylor to track down the woman who now seems to exist only in his mind. Mostow handles this rising action adroitly, placing us smack in the middle of the beleaguered hubby's accumulating nightmare. Even without the eerie atmospherics and tantalizing hints of supernatural evil in Sluizer's two films, Mostow effectively uses the stark desert landscape as a symbol of pitiless, hostile nature. Mostow also deserves respect for not instantly morphing Russell from a mild, Oshkosh-clad yupcake into a bazooka-wielding badass. Unfortunately, as the buildup unfolds, we realize that Breakdown's initial mysteries are quickly evaporating and the story is boiling down to a conventional cat-and-mouse action adventure. Sure enough, before very long, grimy rednecks are pummeling the hero with sticks, semis are hurtling through walls and off bridges, and people are hissing, “Don't move or I swear I'll blow your fuckin' head off” at every turn. This decision to trade pro forma, unimaginatively staged action schtick for the subtler pleasures of true suspense is disappointing, and none the less so for being expected. Realistically, of course, there's no use grousing about this ruthless dumbing down of once-intriguing material. But at least we can walk away now before Spoorloos IV: The Final Reckoning becomes a grim reality.

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Breakdown, Jonathan Mostow, Kurt Russell, J.t. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan

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