Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) is driving across the American Southwest with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), largely desert country where there are not many other people around. As their journey continues, he is briefly distracted when suddenly a truck pulls out in front of his car without warning, and there is nearly a crash. Jeff continues on, but Amy suggests a stop at the nearest gas station would not be amiss, just to break the monotony and give him a chance to recharge his batteries, and he agrees, but as he finds somewhere and gets out to look at the engine, he is approached by an unfriendly-looking man (M.C. Gainey) who starts conversation then quickly begins to insult him - it's the man who almost caused the accident.
It doesn't do to make enemies when you're out on the road, but what if no matter what you did someone was determined to make an enemy of you? That paranoia of the urbanites out in rural areas, the suspicion that not only will what locals you meet be unwelcoming but will be actively hostile too, informed a whole selection of movie thrillers, and this example from writer and director Jonathan Mostow was little exception, sticking to what the audience would be familiar with for much of its running time. That could have been an issue, leaving the plot predictable and the viewers listless, but somehow that sense of history when it came to this genre breathed fresh life into it.
You could observe it was a cross between Duel and The Vanishing, maybe Frantic as well, and plenty of people did, but there was not the feeling of a covers band rolling out yet another version of a song we were all sick of, thanks to a professionalism in every corner of the production, and that included the acting. Russell was well-cast as the everyman, slightly looking down on those he regards as rednecks as he passes through since there was a light class conflict going on in the background of the narrative, rendering the scenes where he had to act out of character and start kicking ass all the more compelling as we can see Jeff is far from in his element, again a canny bit of casting as we had seen the star was no slouch when it came to action flicks.
Also nice to see was J.T. Walsh as Red, the trucker who offers to take Amy to the nearest diner when the Taylors' car breaks down. Such generosity is what they respond to, and Jeff elects to wait by the vehicle until he notices the engine has been tampered with, probably by the unfriendly driver (the moment you see a great bad guy actor like Gainey in your movie, you know trouble will soon follow more often than not). He fixes it and heads off to said diner only to be told by the owner that he doesn't know what Jeff is talking about, if his wife was there before she's not there now, and the paranoia begins to tighten the screws as our hapless hero drives off to search, soon after seeing Red's truck which he manages to stop. The main problem: Red tells him he has no idea where Amy is, in fact he has never seen either of them in his life.
A twist of fifties cult movie So Long at the Fair in amongst all this seventies homage-style atmosphere, then, and it's a plot that is usually very effective for we can sense the protagonist's emotions of injustice and frustration when we know as well as he does he is telling the truth that even the cops are sceptical about. But this was an action movie too, and Mostow staged a series of highly accomplished chases with proper stunt work of a kind that fell out of favour when studios found them safer and cheaper to do with CGI, therefore there was something tactile about the thrills he conjured up here. Walsh, it hardly needs to be said, was a peerless villain in one of his final roles, and while it's sad he died before he could branch out into other areas of acting he so longed for, it's also sad that we lost one of the finest exponents of evildoing in the movies, always a pleasure to watch. To say more about the storyline would to be deny the enjoyment of watching such a well-crafted suspense piece play out, but observe that sometimes there happens along a film that doesn't reinvent the medium, it just does what it does with skill and satisfaction: that was Breakdown. Music by Basil Poledouris.