By Ty Burr
Updated October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT
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It’s a comment on the remarkably flea-bitten state of commercial American moviemaking that Breakdown was greeted by critics as a Great Film when it was released last May. It’s not — it’s a very, very Competent Film. But since such rudimentary skills as sentient plotting, intelligible dialogue, and coherent characterizations are apparently beyond Hollywood’s grasp in the ’90s, reviewers and audiences can be forgiven their enthusiasm.

Fact is, the studios used to churn out movies like this every other week back in the ’40s — only then they called them B movies. The factory system specialized in engaging professionalism, and it’s so shocking to see at this late date that if you caught Breakdown in a theater, you might have been tempted to drag out the Howard Hawks comparisons in regard to director-cowriter Jonathan Mostow.

Home video puts the film in a different perspective. If this tale of a yuppie (Kurt Russell) forced out of his callowness when his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) disappears during a cross-country drive is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller, it’s no more so than flicks like the recent Hard Eight and Keys to Tulsa — solid genre exercises that went to tape after minimal theatrical releases only because they didn’t star someone like Russell. And when put next to a handful of likely influences — movies that pursue the same themes, in similar settings — Breakdown clearly doesn’t cut the metaphysical mustard. And, to be fair, it doesn’t really seem to want to.

But that’s what gives a film like Duel, Steven Spielberg’s 1971 made-for-TV feature debut, such a kick: The sense that a desert showdown between a car driven by a small-time businessman (Dennis Weaver, clucking like a passive-aggressive chicken) and a truck driven by … nobody can have larger implications about the battle between man and machine, about the impermanence of civilization in the American West, about the existential nature of highway travel. Yes, Duel is a relentless suspense film first and foremost, but Spielberg keeps the story so minimalist — and his skills are so apparent even at this early stage — that it easily fishtails into metaphor.

Another tributary feeding into Breakdown is the 1988 Dutch film The Vanishing (Spoorloos), George Sluizer’s realistic horror story of a young woman (Johanna ter Steege) who disappears from a highway gas station, the boyfriend (Gene Bervoets) who becomes obsessed with finding her, and the middle-class madman (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) to whom the trail finally leads. The genius of this movie is that we don’t find out what happened to Ter Steege until the penultimate frames, when it’s far too late for the boyfriend or the audience. And as the tension builds, Donnadieu’s calm, demented worldview comes to seem implacably evil.

Sluizer himself directed the inevitable Hollywood remake, released in 1993 and also called The Vanishing — and he screwed it up royally. Jeff Bridges bravely adopts the full nerd look as the psychopath, but in this version we’re on to him from the start, so there’s no chance for suspense, let alone deeper meanings, to flower (the ending, too, is a ludicrous pitched battle, exactly the kind of contortionism Hollywood insists upon in order to give us a ”happy” ending).

Like Duel, Breakdown takes place on a lonely grid of desert highways, punctuated only by diners, gas stations, and flyspeck towns. There’s even a scene early on, when Russell’s Jeff Taylor eyes a pickup truck ominously parked a mile up the road, that explicitly recalls Spielberg’s automotive face-off. And, in a sense, Breakdown is the movie the American Vanishing could have been — clever, muscular, attuned to tricky plot rather than swampy atmosphere.

But Mostow has smaller fish to fry. When you find out, about 40 minutes in, what has happened to Jeff’s wife, Amy, it’s disappointingly ordinary. The setup is so rich and weird and vibrant that there’s a distinct deflation when Breakdown resolves itself into a ”mere” action thriller, albeit a tightly constructed, sharply written one.

I know, I sound like a churl. Yes, rent this movie. Certainly, we should all be thankful for any reminder that Hollywood, when pressed, is still capable of craftsmanship. But is it really naive to ask for more? Breakdown: B Duel: A- Vanishing (1988): B+


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