As far as Christmas action movies go, there are very few that exist. John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games comes to mind as one of them, but most people would like to forget that one was ever made. I’d like to review one here that is simply good entertainment--the 2002 made-for-TV movie Breakaway, starring Dean Cain, Erika Eleniak, and one of my favorite villains of all time, Eric Roberts.
The movie opens with the dramatic music of John Debney (more on that in a minute) and shows various angles of shoppers inside Chicago’s busiest mall, Chicago Place. With Roberts’ narration running over this, he explains to his crew of thieves that on Christmas Eve, there will be twelve million dollars in untraceable cash in Chicago Place’s basement vault...and they’re going to take it.
Enter Cornelius Morgan (Dean Cain), a lieutenant on the Chicago P.D. who can’t afford to give his wife Cat (Erika Eleniak) what she wanted for Christmas. His attention is soon diverted to the Lotus Flower Society in Chinatown, where a group of Triad gangsters attempt to rob the club. In the ensuing shootout, Morgan accidentally wings the head of the Lotus Flower Society, who is sort-of like the Mayor of Chinatown, and this pompous ass decides to sue the city of Chicago for forty million dollars in damages...and personally lists Morgan as a co-defendant.
With all this hanging over their heads, Morgan and Cat attend a children’s Christmas concert, which features both Morgan’s daughter and Jimmy Scalzetti’s (Eric Roberts) son. In a brief scene after the performance, Morgan sees Scalzetti speaking to his wife about his son Anthony, who has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. The operation will cost in the upwards of millions of dollars (since ex-cons can’t get insurance, something I had never thought of), which explains why Scalzetti and his crew are taking down Chicago Place.
Unfortunately, Cat works at a jewelry store at said mall, and is staying late with an indecisive customer on Christmas Eve. Morgan, feeling that a recent fight with Cat needs to be settled before the sun goes down, buys her flowers five minutes before the mall closes...and spots Jimmy Scalzetti’s crew stepping through a security door. With only a few moments to make a decision, Morgan decides to tail them back into the labyrinth behind the mall and just misses them taking a service elevator to the basement.
Morgan’s response to all this is a hearty “Retired my ass...” as he prepares himself for what is the craziest, most action-packed TV movie I have ever seen. Breakaway has things that just aren’t done on a TV movie budget, and I really wish there was some kind-of behind the scenes material available for this, because it would explain how they did the stunts and gunfire and explosions on such a limited budget and without too many stuntmen.
In the gun battle between Morgan and Petreovich, a taller-than-tall Russian thug with some kind of combat shotgun for a weapon, Morgan is running behind payphone bays (which are exploding brilliantly), the railing of the mall’s upper floor (which is sparking brightly), and a snowman statue (which detonates into shards of confetti and cardboard that always make me proclaim “Blow up the snowman, blow up the snowman!”). All of this is filmed in John Woo-like slow motion, adding to the agonizing brutality of what Morgan is enduring not only during this gunfight, but throughout the entire film.
My dad, after watching this movie, described it as “Die Hard in a shopping mall,” and that’s exactly what it is, because Morgan has to use all of his wits and anything available to him in order to take down Scalzetti’s crew and Scalzetti himself. One of the more interesting things this film brought to light was pioneering the use of shampoo as a deterrent to your foes. This may sound hilarious to you, but when Morgan is facing Simulus in the upscale department store, he spreads shampoo near an escalator exit. When Simulus comes running up with guns blazing, he goes sliding through several displays and ends up shooting the head of a mannequin (another moment that made me happy; mannequins freak me out).
There are also several twists and turns in this movie that surprised me and raise it one notch above your average action film. One thug that the movie leads you to believe is dead actually comes back to attack Morgan a second time; apparently his injury was not that serious. Additionally, Scalzetti takes some hostages, including Morgan’s wife Cat, which can only ramp up the tension about ten thousand notches for our hero.
As for the acting, it’s about what you’d expect from a TV action movie, but the absolute stand-out roles here are Erika Eleniak as Cat Morgan and Eric Roberts as Jimmy Scalzetti. For Erika, here was a role that was not asking her to be half-naked all the time or to show her breasts (can we say Under Siege, anyone?). She really got to show that she can act and make it be believable, and make herself be sympathetic to the audience. Hats off to Erika for a job well done.
As for Eric Roberts, the casting couldn’t have been better. He pulls off Jimmy Scalzetti with the right amounts of wit, sarcasm, and cold-blooded criminal that I have come to expect from this very talented actor. And while I tend to complain that he plays very one-dimensional villains, here was a villain that was two-dimensional--he wasn’t taking down Chicago Place without a reason (he needs the money for his son’s bone marrow transplant, remember?), and it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried other avenues (ex-cons can’t get insurance, remember?). This character was a desperate man with desperate means to take down an impossible score...and whether he makes it or not is up to you to find out.
The music was composed by two different musicians--the main theme was done by John Debney, which is a name I remember from other TV projects and action films. The rest of the music was done by Louis Febre, who did an awesome job accenting the adrenaline-pumping action scenes in this film.
There is one quibble I had with Breakaway, and it’s that the film suffers from “one-liner” syndrome. This happens with two of the lines that are repeated at least three times by different characters throughout the film. In the first instance, Morgan says to one of the Triad gangsters, “Now there’s an easy way and there’s a hard way. Do the right thing.” His own partner, Rich, says it the second time. The third time comes once again from Morgan when he has Scalzetti in his sights near the end of the film. Now do you see what I mean by “one-liner syndrome?” This is something that, oftentimes, first-time writers and directors suffer from, because they think they’re being cool. To me, it just comes off as bad writing.
The other instance of “one-liner syndrome” came with the line, “You’re a class act, (insert character name here).” I caught that three times as well--first with Morgan, then with Rich, then with Scalzetti. This sort-of thing happened a lot in 80’s action movies too, of which I am a fan, but merely for the stunts and production design--not for the cheesy dialogue. Something tells me this might have been an older script that was hastily updated when it was called into production, and they overlooked the “one-liner syndrome” that often plagued its 80’s cohorts.
If you’re able to put this aside, you’ll find a very decent Christmas action movie that doesn’t scrimp on the effects and the stunts just because it’s a TV movie. If you’re a fan of Dean Cain, you won’t be disappointed either, because he pulls off a very strong performance in this film as the cop that just won’t quit. And if you’re a guy looking for some testosterone-fixin’ this holiday season, and you stumble on Breakaway, then lucky you--you’re in for a holly-jolly good time.