The Christmas rush has just begun.
Dean Cain's character in Breakaway makes the following pronouncement about a half-dozen times: "There's an easy way, and there's a hard way. Do the right thing."
Apparently, the right thing is to plagiarize the plot of someone else's film, and pass it off as your own.
Facts of the Case
When a politically connected bystander gets winged by a bullet during a shootout and sues the city of Chicago for 40 extra large, police lieutenant Cornelius Morgan (Dean Cain, Lois and Clark, Boa) lands on the suspended list. It's Christmas season, which means Morgan—whom everyone including his wife Cat (Erika Eleniak, Chasers, Under Siege) calls "Morg," as in the place where this screenplay came from—begins to fret about where that Easy-Bake Oven and G.I. Joe with Kung Fu Grip will be coming from. A careless argument spurred by this emasculating distress earns Morg a trial separation from his peroxide-tressed bride.
On Christmas Eve, Morg just happens to be on the scene when criminal mastermind Jimmy Scalzetti (Eric Roberts, National Security, Spun) and his scurvy crew perpetrate a high-ticket heist at the tony Chicago Place shopping mall. Morg and Jimmy have history—Morg was the detective who collared Jimmy after his last big score several years ago. Oh, and their kids attend the same private school. Oh, and Jimmy's son has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant with a quarter-million-dollar price tag, which is why the "retired" robber baron is risking the dubious pleasures of recidivism. Oh, and Morg's wife Cat just happens to work at Chicago Place, and stumbles inadvertently onto the crooks in mid-crime, thus winding up a hostage.
Like cavalry riding over the hill, it's Superman…er, Morg…to the rescue. Many rounds of ammunition are fired. Many panes of glass are shattered. Many, many events occur in slow motion. Much stuff blows up real good. Blood splatters. Chaos ensues. Cat prays—though not, unfortunately, for a swift end to this movie.
Remember a few years back, when every other action movie released could be described as "It's Die Hard in (or on) a (bus, train, airplane, taco stand)"? The makers of Breakaway have refined this high-concept idea to an even more concise shorthand: "It's Die Hard. Period."
Seriously, this film so closely parallels the Bruce Willis/John McTiernan classic that any copyright attorney worth his or her membership at the squash club could have a field day. A suspended cop, who's also recently separated from his wife, accidentally stumbles on a high-tech, high-stakes robbery on Christmas Eve. By coincidence, his wife works in the building where the robbery is going down, and becomes a hostage. The cop plays cat-and-mouse with the robbers, knocking them off one by one, all the while carrying on a verbal sparring match with the ringleader via walkie-talkie. Two of the robbers are brothers, and one becomes violently angry when the cop offs his sibling. At one point, the hostage wife demands to take one of the other captives to the ladies' room. Eventually the head bad guy discovers the wife's identity, and uses her as a pawn against her husband. Now, if you didn't know what movie I was describing, what would be the first title to pop into your head? Three guesses, and the first two that aren't Die Hard don't count.
The interesting thing is, the old Die Hard magic still works, even when dressed up in low-budget, made-for-basic-cable drag. Breakaway isn't an awful movie—it's actually reasonably entertaining. It's just that we've seen it before, with better actors, a deeper cash drawer, and a more original script. Dean Cain, a pleasant but limited actor, lacks the pizzazz of Bruce Willis, but he's a capable vanilla action hero—hey, he was Superman, right?—and more or less believable (unlike the Brillo pad glued to his chin in ridiculous imitation of a goatee). Eric Roberts, who can be quite respectable or just plain horrid, turns in a credible—if muted and measured—performance as the criminal mastermind, but I kept waiting for him to go ballistic in true Alan Rickman fashion. And Erika Eleniak makes a pale, charisma-challenged substitute for the dynamic Bonnie Bedelia…but then, that's what we expect from Ms. Eleniak. (In fact, one of the surest signs that a movie will suck major swamp water is the name "Erika Eleniak" on the front of the keep case.) [Editor's Note: Chief Justice Jackson would like to argue that Under Siege wasn't that bad, and Ms. Eleniak jumping out of the cake was one of the highlights of the movie.]
Director Charles Robert Carner, who's carved out a career making derivative, cookie-cutter made-for-the-boob-tube fare (including an embarrassing remake of the cult classic Vanishing Point, starring future Lord of the Rings hunk Viggo Mortensen), needs to get over his infatuation with the super-slow-motion action sequence. If every shootout in Breakaway took place in real time, the movie would be over in an hour. And a climactic fistfight amid strobe lighting effects? Please. These irritating affectations aside, Carner manages to keep the plot lumbering forward without confusing the audience or putting us into a stupor, which is a noteworthy achievement given that most viewers could recite the storyline by rote without ever having seen the picture. (Well, they did see it before…when it was called Die Hard. But I digress.)
But then, we're condemning Breakaway with faint praise, and rightly so. The been-there, done-that patina encrusting this movie is so thick you could scrape it off with a putty knife. If you've seen Die Hard—and let's figure every action film fan in the Western Hemisphere who's over the age of twelve has seen it at least six times easily—there's no real reason to watch lesser talents traipse one more time through that well-plowed flower garden. Just let sleeping screenplay thieves lie.
For its DVD release, Breakaway gets a new name (it originally aired on TNT cable with the title Christmas Rush), a new aspect ratio (it's been expanded from the full-frame TV presentation to an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen), and not much else. The new transfer's visuals are, at best, mediocre. Colors seem natural and warm most of the time, but the contrast is all over the map, ranging from merely soft to downright mushy. The more static shots fare better, but during a lot of the action sequences, detail just goes to pot. The soundtrack is even worse—the flat, narrowly-focused stereo mix simply doesn't do all the firepower and explosions justice, although dialogue comes through consistently balanced and clear.
The only extras are three widescreen theatrical trailers (Enough, Spider-Man, and xXx) and subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Korean. Incidentally, whoever typed the English captions took the word "English" literally—we get British-flavored (perhaps "British-flavoured" would be more accurate) renderings of such words as "honour" and "leukaemia."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't know where you live, but the shopping mall in my neighborhood doesn't include a gun shop with enough artillery to outfit an infantry battalion. I guess Chicago hasn't changed all that much since the days of Al Capone.
Deja vu all over again. As they say in west Texas, El Paso.
Guilty of highway robbery, and of being brazen enough to crib from maybe the best-known action film of the past fifteen years. Guilty of an additional count of keeping Erika Eleniak employed, which makes it all the more likely that SAG won't revoke her membership card and banish her from the silver screen forever. The Judge sentences Breakaway to a freefall from the top of Sears Tower tied to a fire hose. We're adjourned.
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