Breakout Star Bronson In His Breakout Prime
DIRECTED BY TOM GRIES/1975
STREET DATE: APRIL 26TH, 2022/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Fifty-two years old at the time of its release, Charles Bronson’s first post-Death Wish (1975) movie was a Breakout role for the weathered, veteran star even beyond the title. Laconically introduced about twenty minutes into the film in a cowboy hat, sweat-stained sleeveless cut-off, and swilling cans of Coors beer, Bronson’s roughhewn charter pilot shows the action actor relaxing comfortably into his newfound stardom, even while not sacrificing the hard-earned intensity of, by that point, two-and-a-half decades of badassery in both films and on TV. The first of two films starring Bronson and directed by prolific 1950s and 60s television veteran Tom Gries – Bronson and Gries’ subsequent adventure Western Breakheart Pass was even then in production – Breakout is Bronson at most unexpectedly charming, with the mellow vibes of his laidback character in no way blunting the sharp edges of his ass-kicking screen persona.
The film opens in Mexico, with the forced murder of a prisoner by a fellow inmate staged by their corrupt guards. There follows deepening levels of international skullduggery between a Wall Street tycoon (John Huston) and a CIA operative (Paul Mantee) which swiftly results in the tycoon’s south-of-the-border residing grandson (Robert Duvall) being framed for that murder and sentenced to 28 years of hard labor in a crumbling but impregnable Mexican prison. All legal channels effectively sealed by the murky U.S.-Mexican conspiracy against the wrongfully imprisoned heir, his devoted wife (Jill Ireland) eventually turns to a hard-bitten South Texas bush pilot (Bronson) to free her physically, and now mentally, failing husband in a daring $50,000 air rescue across the border.
Based on a real-life rescue mission of a few years previous, Breakout, filmed in European locations in France and Spain – doubling for its obviously unflattering depiction of Mexican prisons – offers the newly-minted box-office attraction of Bronson! the sort of semi-comic heroic role that Burt Reynolds might have been best known for at the time, but which the terse actor of repute makes compellingly his own. The interplay and badinage between his character and mission partners played by Randy Quaid and Sheree North is especially fun – during an earlier, unsuccessful rescue attempt, the former is amusingly convinced by Bronson to dress up as a Mexican prostitute after the latter’s law-enforcement husband objects to his wife taking on that role – and frequent co-star and real-life wife to Bronson Jill Ireland has one of her more substantial screen roles in Breakout, their unconsummated mutual attraction here both pushing the plot forward and offering unspoken motivation throughout the many failures, difficulties, and disasters along the way.
Dirty and gritty as the most de-romanticized, revisionism-inspired genre efforts of the era – in addition to its The Wild Bunch (1969)-inspired slow/freeze-motion effects of its own opening credits, the film’s other Peckinpah-flavored elements include a thumping Jerry Fielding-inflected score by Jerry Goldsmith, grittily atmospheric photography from Lucien Ballard, and none other than Emilio Fernández as the prison warden – Breakout is more than merely a Bronson vehicle, but would most likely lose much without his involvement. Bringing old-style movie star charisma to a film originally envisioned as a stirring exposé of the Mexican penal system, one might see a Humphrey Bogart or even a Cary Grant in this type of role in a previous movie generation, but Bronson by no means suffers from the comparison here. Bared breasts, blood-letting, and beer-guzzling aside, a Production Coded Breakout might have played just as well in the 1940s with here-all-of-three-scenes John Huston or a Howard Hawks directing, but as it turns out Bronson! is just the right screen figure to bridge those gaps between not obviously compatible movie eras. Let’s call it the First Hollywood Golden Age meeting its Second.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray comes with an assortment of Bronson-related trailers, including radio and TV-related promotional material for Breakout during its initial wide release. (Apparently Universal’s then-innovative “saturation booking” distribution model directly inspired their similar promotional strategy for Jaws later that summer.) Feature-length commenting on this clear and crisp high-definition transfer is Bronson’s Loose! author Paul Talbot, who brings the object of his considerable obsession to bear along with meticulous production research and biographical details regarding Breakout’s artistic personnel. Talbot’s commentary could certainly be characterized as an “information dump”, but for this listener, along with another frequent KL commentator of a similar type in film historian Toby Roan, is made both entertaining and fun by a thick and enviable regional accent. (In Mr. Talbot’s case, as an unmistakable Nyoo Yaw-kuh.)
Mid-decade, as well as mid-career, Breakout might not have been precisely Charles Bronson’s breakout film, but it does show the actor glorying in his vivid prime, and even breaking the weathered lines of his craggy face into the occasional hard-featured relief of a reassuring and not unattractive grin. With its grit-and-grunge and raucous hang-looseness by no means incompatible – action and adventure, 1970s-style – Breakout remains a great movie to crack open a Coors to.
Images used in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray. They are credited to DVDBeaver.