BREAKDOWN

By Marc S. Sanders

The southwest region of the United States can be brutal.  The desert landscape is scorchingly hot and the end of the world seems like an eternity away…no matter how fast you drive or how far you go.  Worse yet could be the truckers and locals who could care less about who you are, where you came from or where you’re going.  So, you better be sure your well equipped Jeep Cherokee has enough gas in the tank and your oil dipstick comes up black.  For Jeff and Amy Taylor, though, nothing they do will matter.  Their car is destined to break down anyway.

Jonathan Mostow wrote and directed a taut thriller called Breakdown that builds on a Hitchcockian formula for a road picture.  When Jeff and Amy’s (Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan) car breaks down on a long, lonesome highway in the middle of the desert, a friendly trucker stops by (JT Walsh) to lend a hand.  He offers to take them to the next stop where they can call a tow truck.  Jeff agrees to stay with the car.  Amy hitches a ride to call for the tow.  Shortly after, Jeff realizes that Amy has mysteriously disappeared.  When Jeff catches up with the trucker, the situation gets even stranger because this guy claims to have never met Jeff before or even know who his wife is.  It gets even weirder and more frightening from there.

Kurt Russell is very good in a relatively simple, but effective story that only needs its ninety minutes to get your heart racing.  As Jeff learns of the conspiracy playing against him, the panic builds in Russell’s performance.  A really effective moment occurs when Jeff is forced to go to a local bank and withdraw ransom money.  While the banker is executing the money transaction, Jeff enters the restroom.  In this short moment, Mostow keeps a good close up on a very sweaty, beaten and nervous Kurt Russell.  Jeff is looking for something to use as a weapon.  Now, we’ve seen this many times before.  What kept me absorbed in the suspense of the film is how Kurt Russell evokes his thought process without having anyone to talk to.  In this bathroom, he involuntarily walks in circles, seemingly asking himself “what am I going to do?”.  Mostow never breaks the shot, allowing his lead’s performance to send home the paranoia.  I was right there with this poor guy.  What is Jeff going to do?

JT Walsh was an under the radar character actor; one of those guys that you recognize from dozens of films (Good Morning, Vietnam, A Few Good Men), but you just never knew his name.  He passed away too soon.  I’d wager eventually he’d get some kind of awards recognition.  This is a magnificent villain in Breakdown.  A good antagonist is one you can trust at first.  So that when the veil is lifted, your jaw drops a little.  Walsh accomplishes that here.  He turns on the good guy and he betrays the viewer.  He really plays a guy with two masks on.  Friendly and helpful at first.  Later, a toothless scowl is across his face as he terrorizes Jeff.  The big rig truck that Walsh drives becomes reminiscent of what Steven Spielberg accomplished with his first film, Duel.

While a Jeff Taylor character may have appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock film, as the common man caught up in an outrageous plot he was never looking for, Jonathan Mostow has modernized the method with well edited action scenes.  This is a road picture but there really are not car chases to behold.  Instead, there are moments where like any of us, we will increase our speed on long stretches of road.  When we take our eyes off the highway for a split second, we never expect what will pop out and startle us.  As well, when we try to pass ahead by cutting into the opposite lane, a head on collision may come our way.  The film goes for those pressure points first before another overly used car chase.  This is where the environment fights back against the protagonist.  

The location shoots of Breakdown are superb.  An old diner, in the middle of nowhere, has some locals who could care less about a polite out of towner, clearly concerned about his missing wife.  They just look straight ahead while nursing their beers.  The bartender has also had enough of this guy to the point of threatening him with a gun to get out of the joint.  A passing by police officer (Rex Linn of Better Call Saul, another great character actor) devotes no more than five minutes of his time to poor Jeff’s concern, and then he moves on.  The desert and the people who occupy the area serve only apathy to a helpless stranger.  The setting of Breakdown is a villain all its own.

This thriller works simply because a scenario like this could happen to any of us.  It was released in 1997, just ahead of the cell phone age, and there’s acknowledgement of that time.  Jump to today and this situation could still happen.  Technology is not always going to help us, no matter how many bells and whistles we have on a car or how many bars show on our handheld devices.  In the desert, any one of us can be a victim unto ourselves.  In the middle of nowhere, a bad guy can use an opportunity to his advantage at the expense of any persons leaving themselves unguarded.

Breakdown shows that our worst nightmare could be to drive into an endless daylight void, where any one of us can get stuck, only to later get caught.  It’s scary as a desert hell, and it’s a fantastic nail biter right until its bang-up conclusion.

A CIVIL ACTION

By Marc S. Sanders

In A Civil Action, writer/director Steve Zaillian allows John Travolta to demonstrate the workings of a remorseless ambulance chasing lawyer with a pride for the finest in men’s wear and the title of one of the most eligible bachelors in Boston, Massachusetts.  Then, all of that crumbles apart when a self-effacing acknowledgment breaks through. 

Travolta portrays real-life attorney Jan Schlictmann, who heads a small personal injury law practice with three partners (Tony Shalhoub, William H Macy and Zeljko Ivanec).  They go after the cases that promise large settlements from hospitals, insurance companies and multi-million-dollar corporations.  The best cases are where the mid-30’s breadwinning male of the household has suffered irreparable damages.  The victim is not deceased, but permanently handicapped, unable to work and provide for his family.  A dead victim is not as theatrically attractive.   Better to put the poor soul in the wheelchair on stage for the winning cash settlement. 

When Jan is boxed into a corner to meet with the residents of a small New England town, he dismisses their case as an unwinnable nuisance.  The townsfolk believe that their children have taken ill, with some not surviving, due to locally contaminated drinking water.  Kathleen Quinlan is one mother who wants an apology and explanation from whoever is responsible.  An apology holds no tangible value for Jan though, until he observes who the primary suspects are likely to be; two large corporations that own well known brands like Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tropicana Orange Juice, and Samonsite Luggage.  Now the pockets to collect from could go on forever, and Jan does not realize until it’s too late how much of a personal gamble he is undertaking with himself and his partners in tow.

A Civil Action has always left me thinking on so many different levels since I first saw it in theaters.  The value of a life, especially a child’s life, is not very significant when corporate America profits on dollar bills.  The priority of environmental protection and its most precious resource, water, is just as minimal, maybe more.  Zaillian uncovered a fantastic character arc from a very frighteningly sad and true story.   Jan Schlictmann proudly dons an appearance of false care for victims of botched surgeries and car accidents to advance his ego and materialistic nature.  However, then he found a conscience, as he realized that money doesn’t win cases for his clients.  Instead, the acceptance of responsibility triumphs.  That surrendering admittance, though, is not expected to come from these companies.  Not when the burden of proof only comes from a measly platoon of four small town attorneys, who could never bear the expenses of proving such gross negligence and wrong doing.  This is a David & Goliath confrontation. 

Beyond a cast of recognizable faces, there are scenes in this film that just stay with you.  Most especially for me is the unforgiving nature of Quinlan’s suffering maternal character.  She no longer has any care in the world for whatever sacrifices are made by the lawyers to reveal the truth of what happened.  I didn’t think that was fair of her, frankly.  Zaillian demonstrates what these four guys endure as the case prolongs itself.  However, people are unfair.  Sometimes they are unreasonable because they have been pushed down to a bottom they’ll never climb up from.  This movie and the circumstances at play are not here to please me and make me feel good with a tidy ending wrapped in a bow, however.  The script is brutally honest in its characterizations.

What’s also disturbing about this case is simply water.  Countless times, Steve Zaillian gets close up shots of glasses and pitchers of clear, crisp water.  Children are drinking water.  Water is spilled on tables.  Jan’s enemies in trial will indulge in a refreshing gulp from a glass as they finish a scene with him.  The movie reminds you time and again that water is the silent killer.

Robert Duvall is the shining talent on the other side of the aisle from Travolta as an attorney in a fifty-dollar suit with a beat up fifty-dollar briefcase representing one of the large companies that is being sued.  Duvall makes his shark of an attorney appear effortless.  He falls asleep in court.  He tucks away in a corner to listen to the Red Sox play on his transistor radio.  Yet, he’s wise enough to know how to derail an opposing counsel’s case with just his quiet, unspoken presence at the table.  He isn’t even so much a villain or an antagonist as he allows the hero of the film ample opportunity to settle rather than charge on.  His urgencies don’t work however because Jan has changed.  Where he once saw money, he now sees something much more valuable that is beyond any variance of negotiation.  The scenes shared between the handsome, fit and well-dressed John Travolta against the older, short, hunched yet astute Robert Duvall play beautifully here.  There is top notch stage performance work happening here.

It amazes me that A Civil Action is not available on Blu Ray or 4K.  Look at this cast and its direction.  It’s magnificent.  Zaillian’s film moves with a fast pace of easy-to-follow courtroom theatrics.  Additional performances from Sydney Pollack, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, and John Lithgow are so engrossing.  William H Macy is very good too, as the desperate man trying to keep Jan’s cause afloat.  Why is this film not being granted the accessibility it deserves?  I actually had to pay for a streaming rental watch.  No matter, it was worth it.  For like Jan Schlictmann, money is not the most important commodity known to man.  Morality and decency will stretch further than money that’s been spent, never to be replenished.  A noble and most human thing you can do is to experience Steve Zaillian’s film, A Civil Action. Then you will understand what an unjust world any one of us could fall victim to.  Then maybe you will understand the loss a loving mother endures far outweighs any financial liability from a grocery food company.