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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Breakout (1975) starring Charles Bronson Blu Ray (Indicator)

This action escapade is loosely based (albeit with the character names and numerous other details changed) on a real-life 1971 event when businessman Joel David Kaplan was busted out of a Mexico City prison via a helicopter piloted by Vic Stadler. This occurrence was also chronicled in a book called The 10-Second Jailbreak written by Warren Hinckle, William Turner and Eliot Asinof.

Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is framed for murder at the behest of his crooked company boss grandfather (played by John Huston), resulting in him being condemned to serve time in a Mexican jail. His devoted wife Ann (Jill Ireland) vows to get him out regardless of the cost. Her efforts to gain assistance in the matter lead her to ace pilot-for-hire Nick Colton (Charles Bronson). After some financial negotiations, he agrees to fly his plane across the Mexican border and pick up Jay at a roadside.

Breakout (1975)

Once he arrives, however, he is greeted by a welcoming reception of prison guards who proceed to open fire upon them. While Jay makes a desperate escape attempt on foot in order to catch up with the aircraft, Nick has to fly out of there before he can reach them. It’s back to the drawing board as Ann agrees to pay Nick more money and he enlists the help of his mechanic Hawkins (Randy Quaid), his slutty ex-lover Myrna (Sheree North) and a skilled helicopter pilot named Harve (Alan Vint) to put a more elaborate plan into action.

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Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) made Charles Bronson into one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Ironically, however, his standoffish persona didn’t quite catch on in the same manner in his homeland of America until the major success of Death Wish (1974). All of a sudden he had a very busy schedule in Hollywood, with three films getting released in 1975 alone: Hard Times, Breakheart Pass and Breakout - the last of which I review in this article. Breakout was also one of two of these (the other being Breakheart Pass) to have been directed by Tom Gries.

While ultimately a fairly formulaic rescue pic, it offers one or two slight deviations from the usual Bronson vehicle of this period. For one thing his usual stoic, taciturn, one-man-army style has been softened a little. Sure, his character is still decidedly tough and gruff - but is also quite boisterous and good-humoured, isn’t entirely fearless (he turns his tail and flees the scene when gunfire occurs) and likes to lean on his network of friends rather than just going it alone. He feels a little closer to a real human being rather than some untouchable archetypal movie construct.

This is an action film where most of the action is concentrated on in the last 25 or so minutes, when we finally get to watch the titular breakout. It is admittedly pretty exciting, featuring some effective suspense (including neat use of that classic ticking clock trope), spectacular aerial photography and stunt work, and a particularly gruesome death involving one character being torn to shreds by an aeroplane propellor.

The scenes leading up to that point are largely ho-hum. They are shot in a somewhat pedestrian manner and, more often than not, consist of characters bickering away at each other over what to do next. However, they are still watchable thanks to a few moments of comedy and some game performances by an all-star cast. Breakout certainly possesses one of the best cast lists of any of Bronson’s 1970s films. Robert Duvall and Randy Quaid were rising stars at this time, coming off the back of their Academy Award nominations for The Godfather (1972) and The Last Detail (1973) respectively. While Duvall’s character isn’t as fully written as some of his other roles are, he still effectively depicts the inherent despair and depression that a man imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit would naturally be feeling. Quaid plays the kind of loud comic relief hick which he would exhume for the National Lampoon’s Vacation series but, nonetheless, he generates a good deal of bouncy interaction with Bronson in their scenes together. Sheree North provides a real highlight as a wild, horny middle-aged beautician whom Bronson’s character enlists to provide an important distraction.

Sheree North in Breakout (1975)

John Huston fares less well as the reluctant main villain of the piece. He only pops up in three scenes before dropping out of the story without a trace. His character’s motivations remain rather vague and we never find out his ultimate fate by the film’s end. Apparently, some of his scenes were reduced because J.M. Kaplan, the real-life figure upon which his character was based, threatened Columbia with legal action. However, even when factoring this in, Huston’s part was all too obviously shot over the course of a single day. Huston was known to take walk-on parts in formulaic genre fare like this (and sometimes even considerably tackier examples, e.g. the Italian killer octopus flick Tentacles) in order to raise finances for personal projects such as his excellent adaptation of Flannery O'Connor’s Wise Blood (1979). There’s also the matter of Jill Ireland who, at Bronson’s insistence, played the female lead in many of his films despite the fact that she often gave awkward and annoying performances. Here is no exception.

Breakout can easily be summed up by the phrase “serviceable potboiler”. It provides enough in the way of action and semi-comedic character interactions to while away 96 minutes but not really anything more than that. It is far away from being Charles Bronson’s finest hour but also far from being his worst.

Runtime: 96 mins

Dir: Tom Gries

Script: Howard B. Kreitsek, Marc Norman, Elliott Baker, suggested by a book by Warren Hinckle, William Turner and Eliot Asinof

Starring: Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall, Jill Ireland, John Huston, Randy Quaid, Sheree North, Emilio Fernández, Paul Mantee, Alan Vint, Alejandro Rey, Roy Jenson, Jorge Moreno

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The typically 1970s colour grading (all bright Eastmancolor yellows, oranges and blues) comes out in a rich and vivid manner in this decent print. However, some of the darker images are a bit soft and indistinct. The dialogue also sounds a bit tinny at times, although this is perhaps attributable to the fact that Columbia reportedly rushed the film’s schedule.

Extras

Audio Commentary with Paul Talbot

Writer and Bronson obsessive Talbot provides this engrossing and superbly researched commentary track. He goes into considerable detail about the real-life story and characters upon which the film was based and compares them with how they are portrayed on screen. He also embellishes practically every scene with a wealth of production detail.

A nighttime burial sequence notwithstanding, every scene was shot at a real location rather than on a soundstage. However, while the story is set in Mexico, Texas and New York, nothing in the film was filmed at these specific locations. The Mexican scenes were filmed in France and Spain, while the America-set scenes were all filmed in Southern California.

The film’s budget was $2.5 million, with $1 million of that going to star Charles Bronson. As part of his contract, he insisted upon the casting of his wife Jill Ireland in the Ann Wagner role and that the script be changed in order to imply that his character is attracted to her. The motel scene between Bronson and Sheree North was originally scripted to culminate in them having sex. However, in order to be consistent with his attraction to Ireland’s character, Bronson asked for this to be changed so that he rejects her advances. Bronson was also known to be uncomfortable with on-screen love scenes.

While most of the characters were directly based on real life personae (albeit behind different names), Ann Wagner was written as a composite of four women who featured prominently in Joel David Kaplan’s life during his incarceration: two different wives, his sister and his mother. Robert Duvall, who plays Jay Wagner (the character who as modelled upon Joel David Kaplan) wrote much of his own dialogue. John Huston’s scenes were filmed in one day and feature him wearing one of his own suits. A few years later, Huston was lined up to direct the Bronson vehicle Love and Bullets but had to drop out to receive heart surgery.

Columbia expedited the film’s production in order to capitalise on the success of Death Wish. To ensure quick completion, most of the camera setups were kept fairly simple and editor Bud S. Isaacs was forced to cut the film in parallel with shooting. Things didn’t quite go according to plan, however, when Joel David Kaplan’s grandfather J. M. Kaplan threatened Columbia with legal action over the negative insinuations made about him via his on-screen portrayal in the form of the film’s antagonist, Harris Wagner (John Huston). Some of the character’s dialogue had to be trimmed and any connection with the book The 10-Second Jailbreak was downplayed. This resulted in its release being delayed by a few months.

Nonetheless, Breakout was one of Bronson’s biggest commercial hits and broke box office records in several European countries. It was also one of his few non-Death Wish films to be a major success back home in America. The latter was partially attributable to some creative marketing and distribution. Columbia adopted a then-novel saturation release policy whereby it came out simultaneously in 1,300 cinemas across the US and Canada. Several million dollars were also spent on extensive TV and radio advertising. A number of local publicity stunts marked its release, ranging from a literal helicopter drop of marked tennis balls (which would allow the lucky recipients to see it for free) to a public screening being arranged in an actual jail. It ultimately took around $25 million from its worldwide theatrical screenings which was a decent sum in those days.

Filming Breakout

This featurette comprises about 6 minute’s worth of black-and-white subtitled French TV show footage taken behind the scenes at the location shoot at Fort de Bellegarde in southern France (which stood in for the Mexican prison). It features some interview footage with Charles Bronson and others.

The other extras here include a Super 8 version, a trailer, TV and radio spots, an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.

Overall:

This average aerial rescue tale just about flies on account of its enjoyable performances and exciting climax. Paul Talbot’s first-rate commentary gives the whole package more value than it might otherwise have had.

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆1/2

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆1/2

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