Breakdown [1997]

Tautly directed and superbly photographed, this crowd-pleasing thriller from 1997 is indebted to Steven Spielberg's Duel, but more closely resembles Dead Calm in its strengths and weaknesses. Kurt Russell plays a stressed-out husband whose wife (Kathleen Quinlan) disappears after their car breaks down in the desert. Tracking her whereabouts leads to an interstate theft and kidnapping ring, and as Russell pursues--and is pursued by--a vicious redneck played to perfection by J.T. Walsh (in one of his final film roles), the movie succumbs to several tense, but utterly conventional action sequences. That doesn't stop the movie from being an above-average nail-biter. It is so effectively directed by co-writer Jonathan Mostow that even the more surreal situations seem plausible and altogether unsettling. Russell's performance is key to the film's success--he's smart enough to be admirable, and we can readily identify with his frustration, confusion, and torment. Through him, Breakdown takes on the edgy quality of a wide-awake nightmare. --Jeff Shannon

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