Breakdown 1997 ****

Breakdown

Netflix have slowly eroded their reputation in terms of movies for some time, as studios take back their product to create rival streaming services of their own. So whatever you think of their new stand-alone shows and series, finding a good film to watch on Netflix is increasingly tricky, and it’s a surprise to see Breakdown pop up. Directed by Jonathan Mostow, Breakdown is a neat, unassuming thriller that delivers on the promise of a good story well told; an ideal fit for the casual viewings that Netflix seems to court so assidously.

Kurt Russell is Jeff Taylor, heading across the US in his Jeep SUV with his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan). Jeff unwisely leaves the bonnet of his car open while visiting a gas station, and drives away unaware that his vehicle has been sabotaged. When the car break down, a friendly trucker Red Barr (JT Walsh) offers to take them both to the nearest town, but Jeff elects to stay with his precious car. Discovering and solving the problem, he races off to re-unite with Amy, but when he arrives at the local diner, there’s no sign of her…

Some spoilers may be required, but if you haven’t figured out that Barr knows more than he’s saying, you haven’t seen many movies. Walsh was a terrific performer, and his glassy-eyed nonchalance works wonders here; a scene where Jeff hails down a police-car and demands they search Barr’s truck is intensely frustrating to watch, because Walsh is so plausible as an innocent man. But we already know he’s lying; for once, our superior position drives identification with Barr and invites us to join Jeff in his bid to uncover the truth.

Mostow does a great job with the physicality of this story, with lonely vistas and desolate, tense silences mixed up with multi-vehicle chases, burning rubber and screaming gear-boxes. And Russell’s Jeff is a truly relatable character; like John McClane in Die Hard, he’s ingenious and resourceful, but never acts like a superman. Basil Poledouris contributes a great, untypical score, and with hissable villains and lantern-jawed heroes, it’s easy to cheer the pedal-to-the-metal justice of Breakdown.

Although made in 1997, mobile phones and video-games both feature in Breakdown, but just not in the prominent way that they would if the film was made today. The locals mock Jeff’s car as being reliant on a computer, and Jeff’s re-birth as a man is largely because he sets aside his urban gadgetry and gets back down with a little primal ass-kicking. ‘What would I do with $90,000 worth of donuts?’ muses Amy; such vapid, idle speculation is the result of losing touch with reality, and Breakdown delivers that reality to Jeff and Amy with some velocity. Breakdown is a B-movie, without a shred of pretention; Duel, Straw Dogs or Deliverance might have covered similar ground, but Breakdown deserves an audience by virtue of it’s no-frills, all-thrills approach to involving and satisfying an audience in 93 minutes flat, with no stops or comfort breaks.

The Jigsaw Man 1983 ***

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Are YOU looking for daily updates on Arthur Negus? Almost certainly, the answer is no. And yet, I have news of the ancient, long-passed BBC antiques expert, because he drifted across the stream of my Amazon Prime account like the answer to a madman’s prayer during last night’s perusal of Terence Young’s forgotten 1983 thriller The Jigsaw Man.

As a teenager, The Jigsaw Man seemed exactly like the kind of drab espionage fare best avoided, but either the film or my tastes have changed because this critic found himself drawn to such musty charms. But how to persuade others to join me? After an exchange with no less august a figure than Derrick from excellent review site The Ferguson Theater ( http://derricklferguson.wordpress.com/) about films that have merits outside of their conventional values, I came up with this shortlist of ten further reasons to watch The Jigsaw Man, an all-star spy caper very loosely based on the Cambridge Five. Michael Caine plays a Soviet defector who returns to the UK to play a cat and mouse game with British authorities, but no simple summary can capture the many facets of such an enterprise….

  • Would you like to see Donald Pleasence’s house? For indeed, it is the Chiswick maison of the British character actor that forms the backdrop to key scenes here.
  • There are no cameos from Captain America or the Hulk here, but how about a brief nod and a wink from British household entertainer Max Bygraves to add value?
  • While we’re talking cameos, would a brief hello from composer and national treasure Sir William Walton help seal the deal?
  • Would you like to see screen titan Sir Laurence Olivier face to face with David Kelly, best remembered as Basil Fawlty’s Irish builder in Fawlty Towers?
  • Have you ever hoped to see a car chase through Royal Windsor safari park, with monkey and giraffe action included in the fruit-stand-toppling action?
  • What kind of cultural value would you put on seeing James Bond and Rocky Horror star Charles Gray without his wig?
  • Talking of Bond, how about reuniting classic Bond director Young with regular stars in his films like Gray, Sabine Sun and Vladek Sheybal, instantly recognisable via From Russia With Love, and his impeccable musical performance in The Apple?
  • Speaking about reunions, how about bringing Olivier back in tandem with Michael Caine, years after their brilliant combination in Sleuth?
  • Why not have Michael Caine speak, not only in a comedy Russian accent, but a third comedy voice which is supposedly an Oklahoma oilman? Or dress up as a priest?
  • And why not throw in any other available British character actors, lets say, Robert Powell, Susan George and Michael Medwin to fill out the cast?

The takeaway is; there are other reasons to watch a film other than because it’s good by some definition. The Jigsaw Man had various, well-documented production problems, and key scenes are rushed and garbled; the flashback seems to have been lifted from another film. If you’re seeking thrills, don’t bother. But is you’re interested in Britain, film-stars, nostalgia or any number of cinematic ephemera, The Jigsaw Man is well worth exhuming from whatever dusty crypt it has lain in since 1983. The link is below…

Cannonball 1976 ***

cannonball-3The no-hold-barred, cross-country car-race became familiar via The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run films; Paul Bartel’s Cannonball was a pioneering entry in this subgenre, with David Carradine’s character Coy “Cannonball” Buckman taking some inspiration from Edwin G ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker. There’s a whole lot of cannon-balling in that intro, but there’s even more in this Roger Corman film, which has a decidedly shaky tone. Bartel had ben asked by Corman to beef up the content featured in Death Race 2000, and this chaotic mess of a film does exactly that, with plenty of violent deaths which run counter to the otherwise sunny outlook. Racing against Coy and his girl Linda (Veronica Hamel from Hill Street Blues) are brother Robert Carradine, Mary Wonorov as one of the ‘game girls in a van’ team, Dick Dastardly-lite Wolfe Messer (James Keach) and singer-songwriter Penman Waters (Gerritt Graham). As if that’s not enough, there’s also Dick Miller getting beaten up while Bartel serenades him on a grand piano, blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese, plus producer Don Simpson as a DA. Cannonball wears its thirst for carnage on its sleeve, and hopes the audience will feel the same. ‘See the worlds biggest pile-up!’ the poster screams, but the bloodshed sits uneasily with the silly comedy, and the idea of a road race in which dozens of people die is a conundrum the film’s lightweight resolution fails to address. The Cannonball myth was refined for more popular films; Bartel’s 1976 film is still something of a curiosity piece.

Race With The Devil 1975 ***

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A film-loving friend suggested trying to imagine the definitive 70’s movie; The Great Smokey Mountain Carquake and Orangutan In a Trans-am were the (fictional) winning entries. Race with the Devil would do just as well; Jack Starrett’s 1975 horror-action hybrid attempts to capture the mid-70’s angst by fusing demonology with hard driving; the late Peter Fonda was the ideal centre for this film. Roger Marsh (Fonda) and his pal Frank (Warren Oates) grab their girls (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker) and head into the desert with their RV and motorbikes, only to come across Satanists; the result is, quite literally, a race with the devil. There’s a few staples of 70’s cinema here, from distrust of authorities to a downbeat ending, but there’s also a sense of fun; if you mash up Deliverance, Easy Rider and The Exorcist, this is exactly what you get.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/race-with-the-devil/id759908747

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry **** 1974

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(This review renosed and updated after the death of Peter Fonda in August 2019). On the back of his Easy Rider success, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Peter Fonda, and he was shoe-horned into a number of vehicles in the hope of capturing a youth audience. Some of them, notably Race With The Devil, are great fun, and probably the best of Fonda’s work in this period is Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Finding a sweet spot between the road-hippie odyssey of Easy Rider and the sunny automotive destruction of Smokey and the Bandit, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry cast Peter Fonda and Susan George as the titular ex-NASCAR driver and his girl as they evade the attentions of a corrupt sheriff and somehow strike a blow for all-American freedom by causing pile-ups and car smashes. The final helicopter chase is a high-water-mark of stunt-work, well handled by John Hough, and the ending is a absolute one-off that sticks in your mind forever. Simultaneously sociopathic and patriotic, it’s an anti-establishment drama without the politics, and shows Fonda’s free-wheeling charisma and anti-hero styling at its best.

Getaway 2015 ****

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“If one person enjoys this movie, then I’ve done my job’ is a cliché for spurned artists; there’s so little love around for Courtney Solomon’s car chase thriller than admirers may well feel that they’re in a minority of one. The public stayed away, the critics were savage, and yet Getaway is a real guilty pleasure. The concept is simple; Ethan Hawke is ex-racing car driver called Brent Magna, trapped in a Die Hard-lite scenario; a mysterious voice (Jon Voight) gives him a series of automotive tasks to complete with the life of his kidnapped wife at stake. Magna ends up stealing a Shelby Super Snake Mustang complete with horrified owner (Selena Gomez), and together they attempt to wriggle out of the trap. Shot in Bulgaria, Getaway avoids CGI in favour of practical race and chase stunts, and there’s plenty of bang for your buck. There’s slumming stars (including perfect B-movie support from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman and the permanently fabulous Bruce Payne), jazzy, over-cranked action, a ninety-minute running time and a silly but pleasing story; when the Fast and Furious films are getting increasingly bloated and less fun than they should be, Getaway offers cheap but undeniable thrills for the world’s carmageddon junkies.

 

Death Rage 1976 ***

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Yul Brynner was something of an unlikely star, but his performances in The King and I, The Magnificent Seven and Westworld made him a house-hold name. By 1976, he was dying of cancer, but still puts in a serviceable performance in Antonio Margheriti’s murky but effective thriller. Brynner is Peter Marcinia, a NYC hit man who re-enters the killing game to revenge the death of his brother. He travels to Naples where he tangles with both the local cops and the mafia, while finding time for romance with exotic dancer Barbara Bouchet, whose night-club routine gets quite a bit of screen-time. While nothing new in the genre of poliziotteschi, Death Rage has plenty of punch-ups and car chases, well-filmed and anchored by an unexpectedly touching performance from Brynner. There’s a weariness about his portrayal of Peter that makes Death Rage worth catching for genre fans; struggling to get himself into gear for one last job, there’s echoes of another 1976 elegy for a Hollywood star, Don Siegel’s The Shootist and John Wayne.

https://www.amazon.com/Death-Rage-Yul-Brunner/dp/B002WY984G/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=death+rage&qid=1563469496&s=gateway&sr=8-2

First Blood 1982 ****

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David Morrell’s novel was mooted as a project for Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro, post Taxi Driver; if they’d taken up their reins, First Blood probably would be quite a different film from the one that Ted Kotcheff crafted for Sylvester Stallone. It would have been hard for it to be much better; First Blood is a very different wounded animal from the Rambo films that followed; rather than a muscle-bound war-god, spitting fire and knocking helicopters out of the sky with his hands, John Rambo is a depressed drifter who falls foul of the local authorities in a small town, stripped, jailed and humiliated before he fights back and makes his escape. Even then, First Blood is clearly a survivalist picture, with a small body count and the emphasis on how John’s training helps him rise about the persecution of local Sherriff Brian Dennehy. By keeping things small-scale, Kotcheff manages to make the action work; the scene in which Rambo steals a motor-bike to make his escape is still one of the most exhilarating cinematic examples of breaking the law.

The Fast and the Furious : Tokyo Drift 2006 ****

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The development of the Fast and Furious movies is one of the more abnormal franchises, driven by fan power and divided into two different trilogies, ingeniously tied together by the closing sequences of Fast 6. After the original, solid, entertaining film, Vin Diesel opted not to return, and John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious seemed to take the sequence down the laws of diminishing returns. Paul Walker also elected to body-swerve the third entry, but it’s arguable that Justin Lin’s Tokyo Drift is the film that got the car-race franchise back on track.

Lucas Black is a serviceable if unexciting lead as Sean Boswell, a US teenager who decides to avoid a jail term by shifting to Tokyo, where he becomes involved with the world of drift racing. Sporting a rather natty blazer, Sean appears to have an almost unlimited budget for high-performance cars, and spends his days practicing driving around in circles with considerable diligence. With no grand heists or any of the crime-busting action of the second trilogy of films, Tokyo Drift settles for street-racing, and delivers in spades, with colourful backgrounds that seem to have been torn from video games. Tokyo Drift is the black sheep of the franchise, with only Han (Sung Kang) and a cameo from Vin Diesel offering a firm connection to the chronology, but it’s a fast paced and enjoyable diversion for the blockbuster franchise.

The Night of the Juggler 1980 ***

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Any alternative history of American cinema should include this surprisingly raw studio thriller from 1980; James Brolin plays Sean Boyd, a tough cop who has alienated many of his fellow policemen by taking a hard line on corruption. He’s forced to confront his contemporaries when his daughter is kidnapped in error; the culprit Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) doesn’t realize that it’s not the daughter of a wealthy industrialist he was hoping to use for an extortion plot. The first half of Robert Butler’s film, adapted from a novel by William P McGivern, is a terrific chase sequence in and around New York’s Central Park, with Boyd battling to get his daughter back. The second half is less sensational, but still taut, and cop and quarry get closer. The Night of the Juggler is something of a social document of NYC circa 1980; street gangs, porno stores, and police corruption ideally embodied by the perennially sweaty Dan Hedaya.