Mother’s Day comes later in the year for America than it does on this side of the pond, and what better gift could there be than one of those films that Liam Neeson keeps making, but focusing on a mum instead of a dad for once? But while Breaking In promises a lot, it somehow under-delivers even while doing exactly what it says on the tin.
Gabrielle Union produces the film, and plays Shaun, a mother-of-two who takes her kids out to a high-security mansion in Wisconsin for the weekend. She’s inherited the place from her late father, a criminal who was under investigation by the government when he died, and she’s hoping to move on by getting the house ready for a quick sale.
Little does she realise that her dodgy dad’s enterprises included squirreling away $4 million in a safe, somewhere in his house. Enter Eddie (Billy Burke) and his gang of dangerous thugs, who haven’t counted on interrupting Shaun and her kids as they settle for the night. In the confusion, Shaun winds up locked outside with the crooks holding her kids as hostages inside the high-tech smart house, leaving her fighting to break back in.
While we mentioned Taken, this is also a canny twist on the time-honoured ‘Die Hard in a different building’ knock-off, purely by being ‘Die Hard outside a building’ instead, and there’s a lot of potential in the premise in its own right. Added to this, Union turns out to be a terrific lead – utterly sympathetic in her quest to save her kids, and doing what she does not because she’s an ex-Special Forces hard case, but because she’s a mother who’ll go to extreme lengths to protect her own.
There’s a struggle there that’s really compelling to watch, but the film itself doesn’t go far enough in any of the ways it needs to. For starters, it’s blatantly been toned down for a PG-13 certificate in the States, though it’s still got a 15 certificate from the BBFC, presumably for a throat-slitting scene that’s strangely bloodless. At times, you have to wonder which of the producers’ friends loaned the house as a location, on the condition that the film features only very tidy murders.
Opposite Union, the gang that imperils Shaun and her family is pretty underwhelming too. Burke, who was a saving grace of the Twilight saga as Bella’s bewildered dad, is probably the standout, but he has a lot of very lumpy villainous dialogue to chew over. Plus, he’s surrounded with sub-Wet Bandit criminal caricatures. Although it’s Union running around outside, it feels like she’s the only player who really connects with the setting and the killer premise.
James McTeigue offers workmanlike direction, which might be fine if it gave us an entertaining nuts-and-bolts domestic actioner, but the mechanical quality of it all means that we never really believe the threat that’s powering the plot. Ryan Engle’s screenplay brazenly telegraphs pay-offs from every set-up, when the deceptively fast-moving first act shows us drones and other security measures that come back later on, but the unfulfilled potential is far more frustrating by the time the end credits roll.
Breaking In has the makings of a Panic Room, but the film it most closely resembles is the first Purge movie; a cheap-as-chips, generic home invasion thriller that would probably be less disappointing if it didn’t squander a killer premise.
That’s a real shame too, because 88 minutes is a four-star running time for this kind of thriller. But in the end, Gabrielle Union’s engaged, energetic performance is weirdly both the best and the worst thing about it. If the film didn’t keep threatening to be better, it might not have turned out so profoundly underwhelming.
Breaking In is in UK cinemas now.