Here's a cool idea for a mid '70s action flick. Take an innocent American man, frame him for murder and toss him into a Mexican prison with no hope of escape. The only way to get him out is via a helicopter landing in the prison yard. Cool, huh? You know what's even cooler? Having Charles Bronson fly the helicopter.
That's the sum-it-up-in-one synopsis of BREAKOUT (1975), a Charles Bronson action movie that I watched again yesterday for the first time in forty years. I remember seeing this one at the old Aquarius Theaters 4 on Pleasant Valley Road in Austin when I was in college. Heck, back in the '70s, if there was a new Chuck Bronson movie playing at any theater in town, I was usually there on opening night. Bronson ranks second (behind Clint Eastwood), as my favorite action film star of the 1970s (although his career started in the '50s and ran into the '80s). Bronson was in his box office prime in the 1970s. Previously, he had distinguished himself in several classic ensemble cast films: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and he had a star making performance in Sergio Leone's masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST(1968).
But the thing about BREAKOUT is that, appearances to the contrary, it's not a typical Bronson action film. The action is minimal, there's an almost comedic air in some scenes and Bronson, though the hero of the piece through and through, isn't some invincible, bad-ass superman. Instead, he's a good ol'boy Texas bush pilot who undertakes the dicey proposition of busting Robert Duvall out of a Mexican prison for one reason alone: money. Oh, and let's not forget that Duvall's wife, the beautiful Jill Ireland (who was Mrs. Charles Bronson at the time) adds a little something to the deal. But, the screenplay by Eliot Asinof and Elliott Baker, constantly subverts our expectations. You keep expecting Bronson and Ireland to get it on while hubby's behind bars, but they never so much as kiss.
BREAKOUT is what you see, what you get. There's no subtext here. It's just straight narrative and it's a pretty thin one at that. For instance, Duvall is framed for murder by his business man grandfather (John Huston) at the beginning of the film but damned if I could ever figure out why it was so important to throw his ass into a Mexican prison. Oh and John Huston? He's in a total of three scenes (none of them with Bronson). It's apparent he shot all of his stuff in one day, tops. I wonder if the producers (Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler) couldn't afford him for a longer period of time or if Huston's health or other projects limited his availability.
Bronson attempts to free Duvall several times, all to no avail, before hitting on the helicopter scheme. One botched plan involves his partner, Hawk (a very young and skinny Randy Quaid), in drag. Quaid gets beaten up by jailers for his troubles. Bronson eventually persuades his old girlfriend, Myrna (Sheree North), to help with the helicopter caper. As part of this plan, we're treated to a scene in a Mexican motel room with Bronson and North wherein North strips down to a black lace bra, black lace panties, black garter belt and black stockings. This doesn't exactly advance the plot but it's sure fun to watch the lovely Ms. North disrobe. The trouble with the helicopter rescue is that Bronson, while adept with an airplane, can barely fly a chopper, which adds to the suspense and excitement of the rescue.
The most memorable scene in the film, which I vividly recall from forty years ago, is bad guy Paul (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964)) Mantee getting cut in half by the propellers of a plane during a nighttime fist fight with Bronson on a runway. It's quick and effective and elicited quite a response from the audience back in '75.
Set in Texas and Mexico, BREAKOUT was actually filmed in Spain and France. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is crisp and sharp and the score by Jerry Goldsmith is serviceable. In the opening scene, I swear Goldsmith uses a little clacking castanet riff that he would later recycle as part of the Klingon war bird motif in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).
BREAKDOWN is far from a great movie. It's also far from Bronson's best film but I don't care. I like Bronson and I enjoyed spending 96 minutes with him again.