I've watched "Breakdown" three times now because whilst I don't think it is great I do think it is one of the better made thrillers from the 90s especially out of those surrounding a car breaking down in the middle of nowhere. But as I said I don't think it is great, it wasn't great the first time I watched and hasn't got better on subsequent viewings it is just effective especially when watched on a dark night with not distractions.
Heading for California on the scenic route across country Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell - Escape from L.A.) and wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) have a close shave when they nearly crash into another jeep leading to an exchange of words at a gas station. A little further down the road and having pushed his brand new jeep too hard it breaks down leaves them stranded but fortunately Warren 'Red' Barr (J.T. Walsh - Executive Decision) pulls up in his 18 wheeler and offers them a ride. Not comfortable leaving his yet to be paid for jeep in the middle of nowhere Amy goes with Red who says he will take her to the diner down the road to call for a tow truck. After discovering the problem with the jeep is a couple of lose wires Jeff heads to the diner but they say they have not seen his wife and then when he catches up to Red in his rig he denies all knowledge of ever meeting him even when the cops show up leaving Jeff in a surreal nightmare trying to find his wife.
So let's be honest the basic set up to "Breakdown" is by no means new as we have an initial run in with an angry local and then the jeep breaking down in the middle of nowhere with that angry local sitting in his jeep further down the road. Even what happens next when Jeff gets to the diner and is told his wife hasn't been there then lorry driver Red denying having ever seen him before isn't that original. But it is a solid basis of a thriller where Jeff is one man on a mission to find his wife and discovering something very dark going on.
Now part of why this works is thanks to some sensible writing such as an early scene where Jeff is confronted by the driver of the other jeep and when Amy asks him who that was he tells her rather than responding in the typical way of saying "No one". But more importantly because there is mystery, a whole lot of mystery as to what is going on, who is behind it and why, why are they targeting Jeff and Amy. It is that need to know rather than needing to know how it ends which keeps you watching.
Well there is another reason and that is the acting with Kurt Russell doing a typically solid job as Jeff who ends up emotional, frantic and confused. But Russell is out shone firstly by M.C. Gainey who as Earl looks seriously scary but also by J.T. Walsh who as Red is one sick F..k. When Red finally confronts Jeff and describes his wife the words he uses just makes your skin crawl.
But I do have a problem with "Breakdown" as whilst it has some great realistic moments it ends up playing things too obviously and safe. Here is a movie which could have been really sickening had it taken some risks with what the public would find acceptable but instead it goes for action and sometimes that action is too far fetched.
What this all boils down to is that in the end "Breakdown" is a solid thriller which is not spoiled by but is let down by playing it too safe and predictable.