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Breakout

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It's a little unexpected to find Charles Bronson starring in a Ramparts magazine cover story, but here he is in "Breakout," a thriller inspired by the 1971 springing of Joel David Kaplan from a Mexican prison. Kaplan was the scion of an American sugar-and-molasses empire with Latin American connections, and in the early 1960s, he was a courier for Fidel Castro.

The Mexicans imprisoned him in 1962 on a highly questionable murder charge, and there were rumors that the CIA was somehow involved. He was in prison nine years before his sister hired a California helicopter pilot to carry out a neat little mission spiriting Kaplan out of the prison yard. Ramparts published material about the CIA connection, but Kaplan wouldn't talk, then or later.

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The movie's naturally more concerned with the rescue mission than with any shadowy political implications. But there are a couple of leftovers from the original story in the sinister persons of a CIA operative and the hero's rich grandfather. They seem to be in cahoots, although how or why is a little unclear. No matter; things get considerably clearer and more direct when we meet Bronson, who plays a swashbuckling charter pilot. He's hired by the prisoner's wife (Jill Ireland) to fly into Mexico on a rescue mission - but not until soldiers start firing at him does he figure out his would-be passenger is a convict.

Before Bronson came on the scene, the prisoner (Robert Duvall) already had made one spectacularly unsuccessful jailbreak attempt: He bribed guards to smuggle him out in a coffin containing a corpse, and, after nailing him in, they proceeded with great hilarity to bury him. Since we never see him being dug up or let in on the joke or anything, it's a little startling to find him back in the prison two scenes later. But then, the movie would have been over otherwise, which is a poor excuse for such a lapse in exposition, but better than none.

Now follows a series of aborted jailbreaks, which depend mostly on the remarkably lax way the Mexican prisons are run - in this movie, anyway. Bronson disguises his partner (the laconic Randy Quaid) as a woman and sends him into prison during visitors' day. The idea is for Quaid to pass as a Mexican prostitute, disguise Duvall in drag and smuggle him out as his sister. The notion is doomed from the start because Quaid in drag looks like a linebacker. He's beaten up and thrown out, and there goes THAT plan.

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The comedy of errors that follows is notable primarily for the poker-faced way Bronson weathers it. He plays his role straight, which is the only sane approach to it. But director Tom Gries surrounds him with a gallery of character actors who are supposed to be a great deal more amusing than they are.

I'd have liked "Breakout" more, I think, if it had been done as a flat-out thriller without the added touches. Bronson is a first-rate action star with a catlike grace and a nice air of menace. But here, trying to land a helicopter after only a few lessons on how to fly it, or staging a phony rape scene to distract prison guards, Bronson is given a sort of incompetency he doesn't wear well. We believe him more easily when he's strong, silent and infallible.

-30-

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