Kurt Russell is one of cult cinema’s best loved icons. Much of that reputation can be attributed to his relationship with director John Carpenter, who would hand-pick the actor as his go-to face for cult pictures The Thing, Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China. In those movies, Kurt Russell played three variations of hero: subdued outpost leader, R.J. MacReady, (who may very well have been The Thing‘s eponymous villain in disguise), and two variations of antihero, the fiercely anti-authoritarian Snake Plissken and the deliciously against-type Jack Burton, the latter a goodhearted galoot who believed he was the film’s hero when in fact that role went to Asian sidekick, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), a character who went about his heroism with a humble pragmatism as Burton eked by in a bubble of grandeur and self-delusion.
Though the success of his low-budget phenomenon Halloween was boosted by the thespian skills of one Donald Pleasance, a veteran who only agreed to star in the movie due to a mountain of alimony payments before making a rather tidy sum for his continued portrayal of Dr. Samuel Loomis, Carpenter rarely relied on acting skills to get his pictures over. Instead, he utilised his eye and ear for the emblematic, scouting the kind of personalities who would complement his super cool indie catalogue. Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston, receiving equal billing as a black and white pairing on opposite sides of the law in buddy movie progenitor Assault on Precinct 13, a Rio Bravo riff that paid homage to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, set the ball rolling. Later, larger-than-life, World Wrestling Federation Superstar ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper aka Roderick George Toombs chewed bubble gum and kicked as the conspiracy-unearthing Nada in sci-fi action comedy They Live!, but nobody fit the bill quite like Kurt Russell.
Despite marked differences in personality, a testament to Russell’s range, MacReady, Plissken and Burton were all iconic characters in the action mode. Whether overcoming seemingly impossible odds, firing off glib remarks or generally kicking ass, they oozed cult appeal, connecting with full-bloodied males from all walks of life. Plissken, in particular, has stood the test of time as a marketable character, even becoming the inspiration for seminal video game franchise Metal Gear Solid. A growling amalgamation of some of modern cinema’s most heroic stereotypes, Russell’s eyepatch-sporting, ‘man with no name’ didn’t rely on acting prowess or depth of characterisation, he thrived on sheer, unadulterated charisma, and for the longest while so did the actor who portrayed him.
Quentin Tarantino — a filmmaker famous for identifying those strengths and resurrecting the careers of former headliners — understood this when casting Russell in 2007’s Death Proof, one half of an audacious and somewhat self-indulgent double feature with friend and long-time collaborator Robert Rodriguez. Though the ‘Grindhouse’ project was met with a lukewarm response from audiences and critics, Russell would once again shine as stand-out risk junkie-come-psychopath Stuntman Mike, a heavily scarred, super cool character in the Carpenter/Russell mode.
By that point, Russell gave us what was essentially a parody of the kind of icon that had made him famous, but underneath the calculated bravado he had grown into quite the actor, honing his craft over numerous decades working with some of the best talent in the business to become much more than an emblem of cool. On the whole, he would continue to be cast for his Hollywood good looks and inimitable presence, but when required he could provide filmmakers with so much more. His portrayal of fabled wild west gunslinger Wyatt Earp in 1993‘s vastly underappreciated Tombstone comes to mind, as does that of U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks in 2004’s Miracle. More recently, his turn as wizened Sheriff Franklin Hunt in S. Craig Zahler’s unconventional horror western Bone Tomahawk made more than a fleeting impression, tapping into his iconic presence while utilising the kind of hard-earned acting skills that many tend to overlook.
Another low-key movie that has all but disappeared off the radar in the years since its release is Jonathan Mostow’s road thriller Breakdown. Mostow would become most famous for directing franchise debacle Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which at more than ten years in the making was almost doomed to failure, but I’d much rather remember him for this dazzling slice of breakneck entertainment. Again, this isn’t a film notable for its strong characterisation or world class acting, but Russell is bang on the money as an against-type city slicker forced into action hero territory by an unscrupulous band of backwoods hoodlums with a penchant for kidnapping, extortion and even murder if the situation determines. While Russell is more than familiar with characters of the valiant persuasion, there is none of the dry cool wit or gruff resistance he has become synonymous with. Here he plays a frantic husband pushed beyond the realms of civility, and he, like the movie, is engrossing from start to finish.
Nothing inspires horror quite like isolation, which taps into our most primal fears, and Breakdown recalls such out-in-the-sticks classics as Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Robert Harmon’s gay panic classic The Hitcher, also taking a leaf out of George Sluizer’s devastating Dutch thriller Spoorloos (The Vanishing), later repackaged for American audiences. It begins with a confrontation between Russell’s Jeff Taylor and a seemingly random trucker who dangerously pulls in front of his Jeep from out of nowhere, almost running he and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), off a stretch of highway somewhere between Boston and San Diego. Later, their vehicle breaks down unexpectedly, and Amy volunteers to accompany a seemingly helpful trucker to a café five miles down the road, only when Jeff fixes his Jeep and attempts to catch up with them neither are there, and when he pursues the truck and locates it, the man in question claims to have never seen the flabbergasted husband before, a fact that a local law official has no choice but to accept.
Breakdown is one of those movies that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. It is relentlessly paced and full of cute surprises, taking a fairly conventional set-up and refusing to descend into predictable territory, something you’re expecting throughout, and therein lies its beauty. It’s simple and familiar, but Mostow and Sam Montgomerys’ screenplay thunders along without an ounce of fat. Instead of descending into the wholly derivative it takes a detour into distinctly macabre territory, an angle buoyed by perennial bad guy J. T. Walsh, who puts in a typically engaging shift as Warren “Red” Barr, a bald-faced trucker with a twisted double life. Walsh shifts from dependable family man to heartless deviant with an icy nonchalance that is truly unsettling. When a newly no-nonsense Jeff, pushed to the absolute brink by the unflinching, infallible veneer of his tormentors, interrupts Red’s latest threat with a vicious kick to the face, you feel yourself lashing out as he does.
Even more disturbing is Red’s operation. Barr has a whole gang of hoods with an insatiable disdain for city folk and an imagined entitlement to what they own. For a while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who is in on their convoluted, yet tightly-wound operation, one that has led to the disappearance of an abundance of women on Red’s watch. His traditional homestead, situated in the middle of nowhere, is a veritable mausoleum when you consider those missing faces of years gone by, his padlocked freezer in a padlocked basement a devastating punctuation mark for a movie that relies more on suggestion when dealing with the kidnapped subject and her unseen predecessors.
Russell is truly engrossing as the down on his luck preppy who goes from trusting schmo and enlightened pacifist to seething purveyor of vengeance in a 93-minute movie that comes and goes so quickly you almost feel cheated — a testament to Breakdown‘s ability to compel. It may be a little far-fetched at times, particularly the movie’s gloriously overblown finale, which includes a high-speed chase between three cars and a truck, and an excruciating scene right out of Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger. This no doubt had a bearing on the movie’s waning status as the industry grew more sophisticated, but boy is it an entertaining ride. Both figuratively and literally.