Few moments are as depressing as the realization that the movie you’re watching hasn’t got the guts or the spine it believes it has. James McTeigue’s Breaking In is a toothless PG-13 exploitation thriller that is afraid of its own shadow. Which is a shame, because I quite liked parts of it.
Breaking In starts out promising, but quickly we begin to suspect the opening scene was a ruse. The movie starts out with an old man meditating in what looks to be a very expensive walk-in closet. We see him grab a watch and then leave his luxury apartment building for a morning run. We follow him as he crosses the street only to be hit by a truck at a four-way stop.
As the man lies in the road the driver gets out. We never see anything but his black cowboy boots. He walks over to the prone man, who is still alive. The stranger raises his foot and brings it down to the old man’s head—cut to the title card. All of what I described has been in slow motion with an underlying hypnotic beat to it. It’s a gruesome setup, but it never goes anywhere near that level of gruesomeness for the duration of the movie.
Which, on one hand, is fine. Except Breaking In wants to be an exploitation thriller. We know this by the way it asks us to stare luridly at our heroes as they are put in constant danger. But they are not in danger. Time and time again Breaking In pulls its punches.
As the credits roll we meet Shaun (Gabrielle Union) along with her two children Glover (Seth Carr) and Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus). We learn the man in the opening scene was Shaun’s father. The three are going to his lake house to sell it. Shaun hasn’t spoken to her father in years and what’s more hasn’t been to his house in even longer.
It’s alluded to throughout the movie that Shaun’s father was a criminal—what kind is never revealed. Upon arriving at the house, the three discover her father had the house retrofitted with a new security system. The new system locks down the house and turns it into a veritable fortress.
It’s not long before Shaun and her two kids start noticing weird things around the house, almost as if they are not alone. Of course, they are not; three men have broken into the house to get at Shaun’s father’s safe that contains four million dollars. The three men consist of the same stock villains that all gangs of this sort normally have.
We have the squeamish and nervous pretty boy with dyed blonde hair, Sam (Levi Meaden). He’s the one who slept with the old man’s assistant and got her to spill the beans about the safe and the money. If this movie had come out in the nineties his role would have been played by Ethan Embry. In fairness to Meaden, Embry probably wouldn’t have played this part any better.
Then, of course, we have the resident unhinged psychopath Duncan (Richard Cabral). A wild-eyed man who wields a knife and whose body is covered in tattoos. Finn enough, the laziest drawn archetype, is the one character who seems to realize what movie he’s in. The leader Eddie (Billy Burke) is the brains of the operations. I use that term reluctantly because for all his talk, Eddie is no smarter than anyone else. After all, anyone can tell after only a few seconds that someone like Duncan is not the person you want if you want a smooth bloodless operation.
The three men lock Shaun out of the house when she goes outside to order pizza. A fourth man is sent out to kill her. She outruns him and in one of the few clever moments of the movie utilizes her surroundings to defend herself. Still, she never kills him.
The premise of the movie is Shaun is a Mother who is pushed to her limits to defend her children. But much like the bad men holding her children hostage, she’s all bark and no bite. At least the bad guys kill a couple of people. Shaun does not, except by accident.
Some of you might be screaming at me that I need to lighten up. Turn off my brain as it were. I hear you. But it’s hard to suspend your disbelief when you have trouble believing the movie even knows what it’s doing. The script by Ryan Engle is a shameful waste of Gabrielle Union’s abilities. It never tells us enough about Shaun. Throughout the film, Eddie taunts Shaun with lines like, “I get it. All your life people have underestimated you.” Which, by itself, is an odd thing for a man holding her children hostage to say. But we don’t know anything about Shaun’s past so we can’t say for sure.
Early on in the film, Shaun calls a man to let him know she is at the house. We know the man’s name is Justin (Jason George). We assume he is either a friend, an ex, or a boyfriend. When he shows up at the beginning of the third act and the kids call him Daddy, it’s a twist I’m not sure the movie meant to have. At no point in time during all their conversations do either Shaun or the kids mention a father.
It’s things like this that make it hard for us, the audience, to get behind the heroine. Breaking In has the audacity to give us a scene in which Shaun goes into a garage and lightly caresses a circular saw. Dear reader, nothing happens involving that saw. The curse of the PG-13 rating.
For instance, take the moment when Eddie screams at Duncan for killing the real estate agent Maggie (Christa Miller). “What the frick is your problem?” Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting profanity is needed to make someone scary. What I am saying is that of the thousands of words and millions of ways in which the English language can phrase things, the word “frick” is the least threatening among them.
Breaking In a dumb movie filled with characters that are not much smarter than the movie itself. The leader of the gang, Eddie, continually attempts to psychoanalyze Shaun. He knows less about her than we do. Shaun repeatedly finds, takes, or is given a weapon, only to toss it aside a few seconds later. The kids are actually pretty smart. At one point the daughter sneaks out of the room they’re being held in to go back to her room to use the cellphone to call for help. Of course, she doesn’t find it and goes back to being held captive.
Breaking In repeatedly puts Glover and Jasmine in harm’s way and has the bad guys constantly threaten to harm them, but nothing happens. Most movies will flirt with the notion once or twice but Breaking In can’t shut up about it. It gets to the point that whenever Eddie threatens the kids, we the audience roll our eyes. Sure Eddie, whatever you say.
Union has enough charisma that we are on her side almost automatically. But Engle’s script causes our loyalty to waver throughout the movie. It’s a shame, as Union salvages what she can from the lazy script and presents us with what could be a terrific badass Mother.
Last year’s Kidnap, starred Halle Berry as a mom who relentlessly chased down the people who kidnapped her child. She too made stupid decisions. But the director, Luis Prieto, infused Kidnap with a kinetic energy. We howled as Berry’s character made one bad decision only to make a good one a few scenes later. Prieto never alluded to any other part of the mother’s past outside of a custody dispute with her ex-husband.
I’m not advocating heroines should make the right decision all the time, but they should make some smart decisions. McTeigue and Engle never manage to get us on Shaun’s side. McTeigue sets up a nice slow methodical pace but it never builds toward anything. The big showdown between Eddie and Shaun is tiresome because we know both of them don’t have the temerity to back up their words. Worse yet, characters we believe to be dead come back like something out of a slasher movie.
In another movie, we might have cared. Here, we are only annoyed because the only thing standing between us and the end credits is this man who refuses to stay dead.
Breaking In is a hodgepodge of different, and quite frankly better, movies. From Die Hard to the other Bruce Willis movie Hostage. Union is a fine replacement for Willis and had either Engle or McTeigue given her something to play with, this movie would have been breathtaking.
There are a couple of moments that had me cheering and whooping with glee. Sadly, they came towards the end. By then I was just desperate for someone to do something, anything, resembling a definitive action. Luckily besides Union, Cabral, the actor who plays Duncan, is wonderful in his over-the-top performance. I wouldn’t call him menacing, because the movie utterly fails at making anything or anyone menacing. But I will say he was, next to Union, the best thing about Breaking In. What little unpredictability there was came from Cabral’s performance.
Movies like Breaking In are sort of depressing. Likable stars in an idea that would be perfect for them. Few things are sadder than seeing a movie waste a star’s talent or never realize it’s potential. I wasn’t utterly bored and the camera work by Toby Oliver is pretty to look at times. But it’s never as fun as it could or should be.