Breakout is a film from the early ’70s that had an extraordinary cast, including Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Robert Duvall, John Huston, Sheree North and Randy Quaid. The film’s big problem was that it didn’t know what to do with the talent assembled for what was in actuality a very bland prison-break action flick. It was directed by Tom Gries, a total hack whose other best-known film is another Bronson vehicle, the odd western flick Breakheart Pass.
The generic title sums up this tale, in which wrongly accused husband Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is thrown into a Mexican jail, and his wife Ann (Jill Ireland) makes desperate attempts to get him out. She hires Nick Colton (Charles Bronson) and his partner Hawk (Randy Quaid) to fly in and scoop him out of prison, but as you might imagine, it’s a little more complicated than that. They get so desperate that there is a sequence of Randy Quaid in drag—which is a very terrifying sight to behold, you will have nightmares for weeks.
The film was slightly based on a true incident, but of course most of the story was fabricated for dramatic effect. The real-life incident and the action portrayed in the film both happened in Mexico, that’s one thing that’s the same, but the film had to be shot in the South of France, because the Mexican government didn’t want to participate.
Breakout’s release was unique for its time, because Universal Studios sent 1,300 prints to theatres. The result was that it became a hit because of the sheer amount of prints in circulation. The next month they did the same with some film about a fish called Jaws, and the modern blockbuster and accompanying release methods for mainstream films were born.
I can’t say that I’m going to breaking out Breakout again anytime soon, but it’s a perfectly passable mid-’70s prison-break film. It’s a classic example of how the idea that Hollywood in the ’70s was some “golden period” in film history is overblown, because they were also making equally bland films then as they do now. In fact, Breakout ripped off many better films from the same time period, from Charly Varrick to Chinatown. Even the Randy-Quaid-in-drag-scene is a lift from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The film would probably been so much better if the original director, Michael Ritichie, didn’t leave before principal photography begun.
The special features include an audio commentary with film historian Paul Talbot, the author of Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the ‘Death Wish’ Films, a short making-of made for French TV, a Super-8 version, the original theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots, an image gallery, and a booklet with new essays by Paul Talbot and contemporary critical responses.