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South by Southwest

If you happen to be a highly civilized yuppie couple from Massachusetts and you're driving a $30,000 sports/rec vehicle to California, don't bother stopping off in cactus-and-enchilada country. After all, the black-clad varmint at the wheel of that sun-scorched pickup truck just ahead has a Dalton Brothers mustache and a huge .45 automatic. Looks like he got out of the state pen last Thursday. That beefy truck driver wearing the baseball cap with the American flag on it? A cold-hearted outlaw. And the sour proprietor of the fly-specked roadhouse where you stop to make an inquiry? One wrong word out of you and he'll stick a six-shooter up your nose. Want help from the cops? Forget it, pardner.

Thus does the Eastern tenderfoot once more encounter the dark perils of the frontier. On the surface, the new Kurt Russell vehicle Breakdown is another kidnapping-and-retrieval movie in the mold of Frantic or Ransom--a formula that writer/director Jonathan Mostow fulfills with adequate style and tension. But underneath, there's another, more vital story, about innocents slipping into hell and having to fight their way back out. Western movies of yore virtually feasted on this theme. Almost every time a stranger rode into Dodge in the anonymous second features of the 1940s and 1950s, he found the place infested with evil, and only through heroic efforts did he survive the collection of card sharks, rustlers and gunfighters who awaited. Russell's Jeff Taylor wears $80 khakis and a pastel tennis shirt with Ralph Lauren's logo on the front, but he might just as well be Gary Cooper with a tin star pinned over his heart. The notion seems quaint and dated by now, but Jeff, too, brings order to an untamed land.

But first he has to find his wife. Instead of running afoul of the bad guys in a saloon or livery stable, Jeff and Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) stop for gas at the Texaco, leave the hood up while they're inside scoring plastic-wrapped bags of junk snacks and--to their surprise--find the engine seizing up twenty miles later, on a patch of overheated desert a coyote would find lonely. Are we in Arizona? Maybe. New Mexico? Who knows? In any event, Amy vanishes two scenes later. Frontier mistake number one: The trusting greenhorn husband has let his beloved slip away with a passing truck driver to fetch help. Aside from everything else, doesn't this guy know that every time you run into the profoundly sly character actor J.T. Walsh, you're in big trouble?

The next 75 minutes or so concern desperate Jeff's battle with the old evil--this time in the form of kidnappers and extortionists who would just as soon stick Amy in a meat locker and forget about her. Of course, they also want $90,000 from Jeff--money he doesn't have.

Have no fear. Do you really think the makers of a Major Motion Picture--translation: $36 million worth of actors' salaries, wrecked cars and catered lunches--are going to let Earl, the oily Daltonesque thug with the .45 (three cheers for M.C. Gainey) or even the estimable Mr. Walsh make off with the ransom? Or flash-freeze the wife?

Of course not. Instead, they're going to set loose the pent-up rage of our Jeff, his Polo shirt growing grimier by the minute. Just like airline executive Mel Gibson was recently set loose when a bad cop snatched his son in Ransom. Just as Dr. Harrison Ford got right down to business when Parisian terrorists kidnapped his wife in Frantic. Just as vengeful John Wayne set off to rescue Natalie Wood from the Indians in The Searchers. Like it or not, ever since Cecil B. DeMille wrote the book on such matters, the Hollywood woman-in-jeopardy has usually required a man-in-charge.

Before he's done, Jeff is swept down a rampaging river in his snazzy red Jeep. He gets a look at the huge missing-persons photo gallery down at the police station. He hitches a dangerous ride on the undercarriage of a truck, slugs it out with villains in a farmhouse kitchen and hangs by a thread from a bridge spanning a dizzying ravine. In the end, he fulfills the mission that Mel Gibson and The Duke and Gary Cooper always fulfill--he brings order to chaos and civilization to the Wild West.

It doesn't matter if you notice (or care about) Mostow's narrative and visual debts to movies as varied as Deliverance (from which he's borrowed the local savages) and Duel (terror via eighteen-wheeler) or that he's reheating Sergio Leone's leftover spaghetti every time he shows us Kurt Russell's big blue eyes (just like Eastwood's) in a close-up twenty feet high. Breakdown is not the most original action movie the world has ever seen, but it has its own atmosphere of fear and paranoia and its own vision of the scummy trailer parks, sun-roasted towns and fatalistic drift of the American Southwest. It's also got quest and revenge, staples with strong movie legs.

Fresh off that dive he took in Escape From L.A., Kurt Russell seems at times a little too frenetic here, an impression rarely relieved by Mostow's overheated directing style. But by now the star of Backdraft, Tombstone and Stargate has enough solidity--enough movie-star weight--to overcome Breakdown's several shortcomings. In sum, he gives us an everyday action hero worth watching and--corny as it sounds--worth cheering, especially if you're under the age of twelve. The only problem is that J.T. Walsh--villain of Red Rock West and Nixon, psychopath of Sling Blade--is once again so wonderfully creepy as a bad guy that we might even enjoy it if he were to simply slice up poor Jeff Taylor into club steaks and motor off into the hot corruption of the desert.

Breakdown.
Screenplay by Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery. Directed by Jonthan Mostow. With Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan and M.C. Gainey.

 
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