Monday 1 July 2013

Movie Review: Breakout (1975)

A routine action movie built around Charles Bronson, Breakout is a superficial excuse for a few clunky set-pieces and little else.

Businessman Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is framed by his own family patriarch Harris Wagner (John Huston) for a murder, and thrown into a mountaintop Mexican prison to rot. Jay's wife Ann (Jill Ireland) turns to the resourceful but scuzzy Nick Colton (Bronson) to concoct a daring breakout. Colton is smitten by Ann, and agrees to help despite not knowing anything about Jay.

As Jay suffers torture by the brutal guards and gradually begins to lose hope, Colton recruits the help of his sidekick Hawk Hawkins (Randy Quaid) and former flame Myrna (Sheree North) to plan a series of escape attempts. When they are repeatedly foiled, Colton begins to suspect that Harris has spies hovering around Ann providing advance warnings to the guards. He takes matters into his own hands and plans the ultimate breakout involving a helicopter landing in the prison yard.

Despite a reasonably impressive cast, Breakout is a disappointment. Although inspired by true events, the film leaves far too much of its story unexplained. The entire relationship between Jay and Harris Wagner is bungled, with dark and generic mutterings about illegal activities and threats to profits. Indeed, John Huston leaves the impression that he sold his time in exchange for a couple of scenes likely filmed in a single day, and no one could really be bothered to fill in what his character was really doing in the movie.

The mechanics of Jay being framed for murder are also littered with more questions than answers. Basics such as alibi, motive, and witnesses are left to the imagination, with Jay apparently not even able to afford a decent lawyer to punch holes in what appears to be quite the amateur set-up.

The film decamps to the husband and wife team of Bronson and Ireland as Nick and Ann pretending to fight and argue about money and logistics, Nick interested in helping Ann because few women as beautiful as her have ever offered him a second look, while Ann is desperate for Nick's help, his scrappiness more important to her than his lack of sophistication. Ireland's limited range means she can do little that is interesting with Ann, while Bronson is pleasantly animated, the smell of dead fish and engine grease almost jumping off the screen as Nick sweatily tries to impress Ann.

A sullen Robert Duvall is mostly a victim, framed for murder, thrown in with criminals, humiliated by the guards, and powerless to maintain any sort of meaningful relationship with his wife.

Director Tom Gries has a few highlight action scenes to stir up the energy level, but these tend to be more lumpy than smooth, the limited production budget seemingly strained to afford anything other than basic shots and edits. The prison setting, resembling an impressive citadel dominating a mountain, does provide a few dramatic visuals, and Gries does not save on the gore when provided with the opportunity to add some strong pepper with a couple of gruesome deaths.

After the clattering noise of the final escape attempt, the film, true to form, leaves plenty of questions unanswered about what Jay, Ann, Nick and Harris will do next. Breakout is just concerned with the breakout; the context remains locked up.

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