Breaking In Review

Breaking In is a rote thriller that should be a Mother's Day variation on Straw Dogs, yet it plays closer to Home Alone.

Early on in this weekend’s Breaking In—during the opening credits, in point of fact—the grandfather at the heart of the film dies horribly. After a gingerly paced jog in the midst of some morning glory, Damien Leake’s Isaac is abruptly, and brutally, run over by a car—removed from this story before it even begins. He is the lucky one.

For while Isaac is able to vegetate in the great hereafter, we the audience are left to endure the most generic and by-the-numbers of PG-13 thrillers this side of the ‘90s. Perfunctory and more half-hearted than Isaac’s last breath, Breaking In is the story of a mom forced to protect her children from bad men in a set-up that should be Mother’s Day’s Straw Dogs, yet often plays more like Home Alone but with far less tension. This isn’t a film reaching out to shake you with suspense; it’s just the equivalent of a cinematic muscle spasm that comes during a sizeable yawn.

The story of Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union), a caring mother with surprising survivalist skills (just because). It was her father who was killed on that fateful jog. Given that she hadn’t spoken to him in years, the lack of closure would theoretically give her some pain to work through, but director James McTeigue’s film is more concerned with just working its way through a boilerplate script. Shaun is thus returning to her childhood home for the first time in decades, and taking along her children, the teenage Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and the wee Glover (Seth Carr). Jasmine is the prototypical teenager, who is more concerned with the friends on her phone than her mother’s nominal and invisible grief; Glover is in contrast the archetypal young lad who has an interest in computers.

Glover’s skill, however, has some faint usefulness, because Shaun’s father was a shady businessman who kept millions hidden in a safe somewhere in the house. While we aren’t sure where that box is for much of the running time, we do know he had security cameras in every room and a remote controlled drone that could spy on a property that includes lockdown armor plating on the windows. This is par for the course, because shortly after arriving at the house, Shaun is locked out of her own home and away from her in-distress kids by a group of bad guys (Billy Burke, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, and Mark Furze), who’ve come calling for the safe.

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But they clearly don’t know what kind of mother they’re messing with—and neither does the audience.

Breaking In has the usual type of glossy sheen associated with Hollywood thrillers that are made competently, but not necessarily passionately. Director McTeigue, who once showed so much promise by helming the admittedly brilliantly scripted V for Vendetta over a decade ago, merely seems to be making sure the lights are on here and the camera is rolling. In that sense, the film succeeds at being in focus and the actors hitting their marks, even as the film misfires a few miles off from its intended target.

Rather than being an even vaguely suspenseful chiller, Breaking In’s most audible reaction in my crowded press screening were waves of laughter and derision, as Union stumbles around the home, evading the eyesight of the most inept criminals this side of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Indeed, while Burke brings some requisite even-keeled menace as the lead baddie who keeps remarking to his unconvinced audience that “Shaun is an impressive woman,” the other three play closer to The Three Stooges, with Cabral especially missing the mark as the “crazy” member of the crooks. Rather than being scary, Cabral’s Duncan comes off as a goon in an after-school special, even when he is slitting throats or making grossly unnecessary rape threats.

In the lead role, Gabrielle Union is serviceably sympathetic and does well whenever she is given a chance to put on her “I am done with this” face prior to some nigh superhuman act of Derring-do. However, her performance is less of an invitation into the character’s plight as it is an overall unconvincing avatar for maternal badassery. More than once, she says she isn’t impressive; “I’m just a mother.” This may be true, but then how can she crawl like Spider-Man below a spiral staircase, waiting for her prey?

There is something refreshing, at least, about Union and her family being just that—a family, as opposed to one defined by their status as people of color. Indeed, their film is as bland and free of personality as any other rote melodrama. Still, a year after Get Out, it’s also obvious the film missed a much more interesting context with this strong woman having to overcome a white man attempting to tell her what to do with her body and her family. Unfortunately, anything so potentially interesting or scary has been ironed out in this formal exercise in triteness.

There is a point late in Breaking In where Shaun warns Burke, “After tonight, it’s fair to say you don’t know me at all.” That also holds true for the audience once the movie is over. Worse still, no one will have any interest to learn more.

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2 out of 5