“There’s their side and our side, and the winning side and the losing side, but the fine distinction between right and wrong has yet to be drawn.”
Charles Buchinski (AKA Charles Bronson) hit his stride in the 1960s with a number of fine action films in which he starred as part of an ensemble cast — films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). This laid the groundwork for his personal peak decade, 1971-1980, when he starred in a succession of generally successful action films. The Valachi Papers (1972), Death Wish (1974), and Hard Times (1975) were among the better efforts. Bronson didn’t have a great range and seemed to say even less than Clint Eastwood, but when pitted as a stoic loner against the odds, such as in these films, he could be successful. Anything that took him out of that mold or failed to support him with a believable story usually did him no favours. One example was 1975’s Breakout which Columbia has recently released on DVD.
Jay Wagner is framed for murder and imprisoned in Mexico with a sentence of 28 years. His wife Ann is desperate to help him escape and turns to Nick Colton, the owner of a small airplane business, for help. Colton makes several abortive attempts before, with the aid of his partner Hawk and former associate Myrna, he mounts a final effort that involves a helicopter, a Cadillac, and a large amount of hope.
Breakout is a pretty disappointing film. Of course, if Charles Bronson is not your cup of tea, you won’t be surprised by this. But for those who enjoy Bronson’s work, this film fails to deliver on many levels.
First, there’s the plot. Jay Wagner is railroaded into a Mexican prison. Why? Who knows — something about his grandfather wanting him out of the way, but the reasons given are incomprehensible. Then, Wagner suffers in prison under the thumb of the worst caricature of a beefy, oily Mexican guard. Meanwhile, our hero Nick Colton (employed by Wagner’s wife to free her husband) manages to pilot a helicopter with a minimum of training and successfully land it in the prison’s courtyard where he seems to stay for an eternity unmolested by guards. Even the prisoners obligingly refrain from trying to climb aboard, yet Wagner is able to push his way through all of them and get on with ease. Later one of the bad guys simply has to say he’s an immigration agent and Wagner believes him, almost leading to his demise. Ridiculous!
Then, there’s the cast. It sure sounds as though it should be good. Robert Duvall appears as Wagner, but he seems to be moving in slow motion throughout. I guess he couldn’t understand the plot either, so figured he’d better keep a low profile that wouldn’t distract viewers even more. Then we have John Huston playing Wagner’s grandfather. Huston’s role seems to consist of looking inscrutable and waving his cigar in the air. Certainly, nothing he says makes much sense. Randy Quaid is wasted as Colton’s partner. That brings us to the dynamic duo — Charles Bronson and his real-life wife, Jill Ireland. Ireland, who plays Wagner’s wife in the film, delivers her usual lamentable performance. I don’t think that Ireland (may she rest in peace) ever improved a film by virtue of her presence and Breakout is no exception. As for Bronson, he can be effective as a straight action hero, but he just looks uncomfortable trying to play the wisecracking Colton who runs his own rather shaky airplane business. The best thing in the film — Sheree North as Myrna, the former colleague of Colton’s whose aid Colton tries to enlist.
Okay, what about the action? Surely, we get some neat action sequences at least? Uh, no. The attempted rescue sequences at the Mexican prison are completely devoid of any excitement and are filmed without any sense of suspense or urgency by director Tom Gries. Then there’s a climactic fight on a runway between Colton and a phony immigration officer as a taxiing plane approaches. In one of the most phony effects I’ve ever seen, the bad guy gets chewed up by the plane’s propeller and it looks for all the world like a pile of paper being shredded. Pathetic!
Columbia actually comes through with quite a nice-looking 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. There are some speckles and scratches and a minor amount of grain, but otherwise, the image looks crisp and clear. Colours are very accurate-looking and natural. Edge enhancement is not an issue. A very good job on a film that hardly merits the attention.
We get two Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks — English and French. They do an adequate job of conveying the dialogue, but of course are dated in terms of delivering the action sequences in the dynamic manner modern audiences have come to expect — not that that would help in the case of the inept action pieces featured in Breakout. There is the usual subtitling in seven different languages.
Columbia does get into the spirit of things by providing exactly zero supplementary content, rightly guessing that no one would want to know anything more about this film. Your intrepid reviewer gives thumbs up to Columbia for this bit of thoughtfulness.
I suppose if you’re an ardent Charles Bronson fan, you might be interested in Breakout from a completist point of view, but I really can’t imagine any other reason. As an action film, it’s a disappointment. As a Bronson film, it doesn’t draw on his strengths. As an exercise in coherent plot development, it’s a poor example. Columbia gives the film a nice image transfer, but delivers nothing else whatsoever.