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January 17-23, 2007

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Cult Leader

Semi Scary: You deserve a 'Breakdown' today

By Steve Palopoli

EVERY REMAKE is controversial to somebody. Some are controversial to everybody. But the new version of The Hitcher may be the first one to inspire more controversy about the original film than the remake.

The 1986 cult flick is one of the most divisive of that decade. Plus, most people discovered it at home on video long before there was an Internet on which to argue about such things. Now fans and haters alike are making up for lost time, lobbing E-bombs at each other about whether this was the shining moment of mid-'80s horror or a nonsensical mess trying to get by on attitude.

It's undeniable that Rutger Hauer is freakishly good at acting like The Crazy Guy Who Really, Really Cares About Being Crazy, and The Hitcher is worth watching at least once to see him at the height of his psycho powers. But the rest of the movie has always left me cold. C. Thomas Howell just isn't enough actor to hold up his end of the twisted stalker/stalkee relationship, Jennifer Jason Leigh is wasted, the supernatural angle is pointless and the occasional attempts to be shocking feel strangely out of place in what is otherwise a fairly moody piece.

A better, but less-talked-about hitchhike thriller is Jonathan Mostow's 1997 film Breakdown. Like The Hitcher, it wouldn't exist without Duel, the mother of all pursued-by-a-psycho-in-the-wasteland films. Mostow's film adds some more contemporary influences—when Kurt Russell's car breaks down early on, and he lets his wife hitch a ride with a trucker in a black semi, you want to yell, "What the hell are you doing? Didn't you see the Dutch version of The Vanishing?" Be sure to always specify the Dutch version, by the way, when yelling at characters acting stupid. Even they don't deserve to have to watch the American remake.

Mostly, though, Breakdown is a homage to thrillers of the '70s. For one thing, there's a powerful dose of the "city vs. country" theme that was one of that decade's going concerns. Russell looks down his nose at the truck-stop rednecks just as Burt Reynolds and crew do the backwoods folk in Deliverance. It's also punch-drunk with the lonely paranoia of great thrillers from that era, playing the "Am I crazy or is someone out to get me?" card early and often.

There's even a more literal homage to the '70s, as Breakdown starts out as almost a remake of Dying Room Only, a strange 1973 TV movie that had Cloris Leachman losing her husband on a road trip in the desert when they stop at a diner and she goes to the ladies' room, only to find him missing when she returns. The connection isn't as obscure as it might seem—Richard Matheson wrote Dying Room Only just two years after he scripted Duel (which was also a TV movie originally), and it was sort of his conceptual follow-up. He also had a lot on his plate at the time, though, and Dying Room Only falls apart.

Breakdown doesn't. It's anchored by Russell—Mr. B Movie himself—in one of his best performances. He's cast against type as a timid and soft yuppie from (gasp!) Massachusetts. I like to watch this guy in any scenario, but it's interesting how much his range expands when he's not shoehorned into his typical role as the poor man's action hero. Breakdown cements its realistic feel by constantly toying with his famous persona—you keep expecting his Jeffrey Taylor to magically become a larger-than-life superman at any moment, but it just doesn't happen. He looks like a deer in the headlights the first time he sees a gun, and he can barely hold one, let alone fire it. Even when he pulls off an impressive physical feat, it's true to his character—he's smart but not too agile or burly, and most of the movie he gets by on the simple fact that he will not give up for any reason. It's a shame more action movies can't pull off an Everyman Hero as complex and convincing as the one he delivers here.

Mostow has a Hitchcock-like flair both for suspense and for maintaining a remarkably realistic feel in outlandish situations. Like John Dahl, he came out of nowhere to produce one of the best thrillers of the '90s (interestingly, they both cast the late, great J.T. Walsh in similar roles—Mostow here, Dahl in Red Rock West). Unfortunately, neither has been able to hit the same heights since, though Dahl got good results with 2001's Joy Ride, which was yet another takeoff on Matheson's Duel.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite hitchhike film here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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