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One bad mother – ‘Breaking In’

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While it hasn’t reached the apex of home invasion movies, the subgenre of panic room thrillers has its place in the cinematic firmament. The notion of being (relatively) safe, yet still being trapped by the bad guys – usually with something to lose – is a resonant one and can make for some engaging, albeit fairly predictable, fare.

The new movie “Breaking In” attempts to subvert that basic structure. This time, the bad guys are the ones in the safe space and it’s up to our protagonist to find their way in and save the day. It’s not bad as ideas go – in the hands of really capable filmmakers, you could imagine this working quite well.

Alas, these filmmakers don’t appear to have that kind of capability. What we actually get is a poorly-paced ramble that never bothers to justify or explain the actions, events and decisions that play out on the screen. Gabrielle Union (“The Public”) does her level best in the lead – and gives a performance far better than this movie deserves – but that’s just not enough to overcome the jumbled blandness of literally everything else.

Union is Shaun Russell, a young woman whose father – a man she long since cut ties with – has died under mysterious circumstances. She and her kids Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus, TV’s “13 Reasons Why”) and Glover (Seth Carr, TV’s “Bosch”) head out into the country to take care of the estate – namely, the giant isolated ranch where Shaun grew up.

When they arrive, they discover that Shaun’s father had turned the place into a veritable fortress, packed with cameras and lights and security systems and those slow-moving impenetrable window shutters – the whole shebang. Unfortunately for them, it isn’t long before they find out why such measures were needed.

A quartet of bad guys straight out of Central Casting shows up, looking for an alleged safe that supposedly contains millions of dollars. There’s the tech guy Peter (Mark Furze, “I Can Only Imagine”), the out-of-his-depth guy Sam (Levi Meaden, “Pacific Rim: Uprising”), the murderous psycho guy Duncan (Richard Cabral, “Khali the Killer”) and the quietly world-weary leader Eddie (Billy Burke, TV’s “Zoo”). They sneak in and take the kids prisoner, but Shaun manages to escape.

What follows is a paint-by-numbers cat-and-mouse game. Eddie and his crew want the safe, Shaun wants her kids back. But while these criminals might be desperate men, there’s little greater desperation than that felt by a mother protecting her children.

Or whatever.

The biggest problem with “Breaking In” is that you can see a fairly clear path to a much better movie. What could have been a fun upending of expectations turned into a rote checklist of those very same expectations. The narrative plods its way from point to point, never once managing to capture anything resembling genuine tension. Even the moments specifically constructed to generate that intensity fail to do so. That lack of tension leads to lack of stakes – we’re disconnected from the proceedings to such an extent that it’s difficult to care at all.

Look, I’m not asking for Oscar-winning work, here, but come on – give me something. At no point does anyone feel like they’re in actual danger. Even when people die, it’s completely unsurprising. Everything happens in service to the plot … even when what’s happening doesn’t make sense. The logical leaps and questionable decision making that are present in all films of this ilk are exponentially more so here.

A lot of these issues likely spring from the weird pairing of director and writer. James McTeigue comes from the Wachowski directorial tree – his efforts include such varied fare as “V for Vendetta” and the streaming show “Sense8” – while Engle’s past work includes “Rampage” and a couple of Liam Neeson movies. Honestly, seeing the clash would have been more interesting than what we got, which seems to be each man compromising the film into dull, disjointed oblivion.

None the problems with “Breaking In” come from its star, however. Gabrielle Union is a talented performer who has struggled to find projects. There are plenty of them out there, outstanding actors who simply don’t get optimal opportunities. She really commits here, letting the fear and anger out in such a way that you don’t really ask yourself just how she’s able to actually DO all this stuff. She goes over the top, sure – this is a movie that begs for a little over the top.

But not a lot, which is where the concerns come in with regards to the supporting cast. Burke spends the entire movie looking vaguely stunned, as though someone he didn’t know slapped him somewhere on his body just as the camera started rolling. He aims for “evil” and lands somewhere around “can’t find his keys.” Furze and Meaden play their characters as they were written – human-shaped background noise existing solely as single-note plot devices. Cabral is so off the rails as to almost come around and be awesome. Almost.

“Breaking In” is a movie that might have been pretty good in different hands. Despite undoubtedly earnest efforts from everyone involved (well, maybe not Billy Burke), it totaled far less than the sum of its parts. No thrills here.

One bad mother indeed.

[1.5 out of 5]

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