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You Need This ’90s Kurt Russell Thriller in Your Life

The Big Picture

  • Breakdown is a hidden gem of ’90s thrillers, featuring Kurt Russell in an over-the-top and thrilling performance.
  • The film is a rollercoaster of thrills and tension, with a fantastic cast of “that guy” actors as villains.
  • Kurt Russell shines as the determined everyman, making this movie a must-watch for fans of adrenaline-pumping action.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that you never knew you needed, slaps you straight across the mug, and wakes you up to its wonderful gifts – such was the case with me and Kurt Russell‘s underrated ’90s thriller Breakdown. This movie is like an adrenaline shot of thrills and unintentional laughs all wrapped up in a tight 90 minutes. On top of it all is Russell’s devoted and over-the-top everyman performance, the movie’s crowning achievement. That doesn’t make Russell the only great performer in the film though. Breakdown features a wonderful cast full of several notable “that guy” actors of its era. M.C. Gainey and J.T. Walsh are two of the many fun and sinister faces that you’ll find standing in Russell’s way, making this movie a great game of “Where’s Waldo” for B-actors. If you’re in the market for a wild thriller and want to see Russell try to pull off a shlubby dad look, Breakdown is the movie for you.

Breakdown is the kind of gem that you skip over all the time while digging through streaming services. People play these games passing by countless titles while looking for the one movie that feels “just right” for that one specific night when really, tons of movies would constitute as “just right.” We get so caught up in looking for big titles to cross off our watch list or finishing filmmakers’ filmographies when sometimes, you just need your meat and potatoes. Reliable star? Check. Elevator pitch-type premise? Check. Keep in mind, a fun vibe upon discovery is a major plus. Lucky enough to have a trailer available that promises a wild ride? Okay, now we’re cooking. As it turns out, the best movies aren’t built upon dozens of previous entries or cinematic universes — the best movies can stand on their own. Why do we toss aside these typically mid-budget, simple movies that have formed our movie-loving brains more than we care to recognize? Why have we as a culture forgotten Breakdown? This is the most important question of the 21st Century.

breakdown poster


A man searches for his missing wife after his car breaks down in the middle of the desert.

Kurt Russell, J. T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan

Jonathan Mostow

Run Time
93 mins

Release Date
May 2, 1997

Paramount Pictures

What Is the Plot of ‘Breakdown’?

Okay, as it turns out, Breakdown isn’t one of the greatest movies ever. Nothing of that sort. What it is, though, is a kick-ass way to spend an hour and a half! It’s engaging, fun, riveting, and has a face at the center of it that you know will provide a good time. Breakdown is directed by Jonathan Mostow, one of those studio filmmakers that has had an active hand in Hollywood over the last few decades, but never quite broke through the stratosphere. That being said, the guy knows how to make a solid bottleneck thriller.


This Kurt Russell Film Is One of the Most Brutal Westerns Ever Made

It doesn’t get more gruesome than this modern cult Western horror.

The film follows Jeff (Russell) and Amy Taylor (Kathleen Quinlan), a couple moving across the country whose car breaks down (check) in the middle of the desert. Jeff stays with the car while Amy goes with a truck driver (J.T. Walsh) into town to try and find help, but never returns. From there, the truck driver denies ever interacting with Jeff, the cops won’t listen, and everyone around this tiny highway town keeps getting shadier and shadier. Jeff is determined to find his wife though, even if he’s on the verge of… breaking down! Gotcha!

As Soon As ‘Breakdown’ Gets Going, It Never Stops

From the get-go, Breakdown kicks into high gear and maintains that momentum all the way until the credits roll. The madness begins before their Jeep ever ends up on the side of the road. A burly mustached man named Earl (Gainey) comes close to driving them off the highway and harasses them at a gas station, giving the film a face to hate before its premise officially sets itself in motion. It’s the kind of structure that many Dino De Laurentiis-produced films have, so it makes you wonder if he pushed for the tension to be there before the main story even begins. Their ride does eventually give out on them though, Amy goes into town with Red, the truck driver, and then everything hits the fan.

It should be required that all engaged couples watch Breakdown together at least once before meeting at the altar. Jeff is the kind of spouse that everyone should aspire to be — this man does absolutely everything to find his wife. He hangs off of big rigs, gets caught up in car chases, takes on white water rapids, is beaten senseless, and even braves waves of gunfire, all for the love of his wife. What a guy! Mostow films these scenes with some super wide lenses that capture all the impressive stunts on the canvas that they deserve, especially in the film’s finale. There are a few moments where you can tell that Kurt Russell isn’t actually the one driving his Jeep during a chase scene, but that’s really it. The majority of Breakdown’s action absolutely rips.

‘Breakdown’s Villains Are Played by a Cast of “That Guy” Actors

Jack Noseworthy and M.C. GaJack Noseworthy as Billy and M.C. Gainey as Earl point their guns at Kurt Russell as Jeff Taylor in Breakdowniney point their guns atKurt Russell in Breakdown (1997)
Image Via Paramount Pictures

It also helps that the film has a fantastic cast of villains to root against. This tight group of redneck scumbags is fantastically despicable. J.T. Walsh and M.C. Gainey are both sneakily evil, but their accomplices played by Jack Noseworthy and Rich Brinkley are also great. Until this point, these four actors had each been in a ton of projects but weren’t necessarily the face of said movies. Because of their skills as character actors, they were just guys that you saw all over the place, hence being “that guy.” These guys know how to play evil like the back of their hands. They’re the perfect kinds of villains who constantly have leverage over Jeff Taylor. These guys beat him within an inch of his life over and over and never let him in on his wife’s whereabouts, all with zero sympathy. They take true delight in it, and we as the audience take true delight in hating them. Red even tells his seven or eight-year-old child “Now go on, son… squeeze that trigger, go on.” ordering this kid to shoot Jeff! It’s such an evil performance that it borders on comical. Breakdown’s villains don’t change the game, but their actors sure have fun playing the bases.

Kurt Russell Even Makes Lame Characters Cool

Kurt Russel as Jeff Taylor struggling to hang on to a moving vehicle in Breakdown
Image via Paramount Pictures

That being said, if you’re coming to Breakdown, likely, you’re here for Kurt Russell. Russell is fantastic in this movie, sometimes intentionally and others… not so much. But he’s never, ever unlikable. His go as an average, well-off middle-aged man is honestly pretty solid, it’s also just jarring because it’s hard to not see Snake Plissken under that tacky blue Polo (there’s something about Russell and that Polo that doesn’t work together). This was around the same time as Escape from L.A., so it feels like maybe he was trying as hard as he could to lean away from his badass acting tendencies and more into the most normal, bordering on pushover, guy demeanor that you can imagine. That being said, he’s still Kurt. Any time he gets the upper hand, you see a bit of Snake come out. Then he says something goofy like “Don’t “mister” me, you son of a bitch!” and he loses all his cool cred. Jeff Taylor is one of the biggest squares that Russell has ever played, but that’s half of what makes his performance so fun.

You might not have known it, but you need Breakdown in your life. It’s the type of fun and simple thriller that rarely ever comes along nowadays, and when it does, it’s buried in the endless sea of streaming services. It’s short, has great action, a simple premise, some truly evil guys who you can’t wait to see what’s coming to them, and a truly underrated Kurt Russell performance. Next time you find yourself stuck on the side of a streaming service highway, 30 minutes into looking for something to watch, just remember that Breakdown is waiting with the keys in the ignition.

Breakdown is currently available to stream on Paramount+ in the U.S


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