Every once in a while, movie fans are blindsided. In the case of 1997 in the midst of all the hype over Titanic, out pops tiny and ignored Breakdown. This small $35 million masterpiece of a thriller is engrossing from the moment it begins to a classic movie bad guy death that's appropriate for the superbly fleshed-out villain. It's one of Kurt Russell's finest and one of the best the genre has ever seen.
The key to Breakdown's success comes in many parts, starting with a tight script that provides basic details to get things moving. In 90 minutes, the viewer is bombarded with tiny details, rooting for Russell's Jeff Taylor to catch at least one break on his quest to find his wife. Early scenes offer false information, spin that around, and then make another flip at the end when the advantage is clearly in Taylor's court.
J.T. Walsh owns the role of the lead villain, switching demeanors on cue, leading to some baffling twists for the viewer. To say Breakdown is frustrating is an understatement. Walsh's conniving innocence is grating when all the information is in front of the viewer. That's a sign you're involved in this one.
When Breakdown heads for its finale, it becomes a classic Hollywood chase, the like of which you rarely see any more. Direction on the part of Jonathan Mostow is just as good as the stunts themselves, and the tension builds continuously. It's a movie you find yourself yelling at the screen constantly because of what's happening.
Everything about this one works. A few brief over-the-top set pieces don't mar Breakdown's unbelievably engrossing plot. You're so involved by that point anyway, Steven Spielberg's line about Jaws and it's ending ("They'll believe whatever we want them to believe at this point") becomes truth. Breakdown is an unrecognized classic.