Sometimes it’s the star who makes a movie. Which is to say that a mediocre script can be elevated by an exemplary lead performance. Other times a star makes a movie worthy of a theatrical release, instead of being dumped unceremoniously on Netflix. The divides getting smaller and smaller as studios weight possibly profits vs ease of access. That’s largely the case with Gabrielle Union’s latest film, that belongs in the bargain bin, the disappointingly tedious Breaking In.
When we first see Shaun Russell (Union), she’s driving her two kids to her late father’s estate. Still trying to process how she feels about his passing. In one of the few effective moments he’s hit by a car & brutally killed. Though much detail isn’t given, her dad supposedly was some form of criminal. His crimes, whatever they may have been, were enough to push Shaun away at an early age. She wants nothing more to sell his house, and the giant piece of land it sits on, as soon as humanly possible. If only things were that easy.
The house itself, at first seems like the main attraction. Decked out in a state of the art security system, it’s easy to mistake the place for a mini-fortress. Just as soon as the family get settled in, though, a band of thugs attempt to capture each member. Her daughter and son are grabbed almost instantly, but Shaun has a trick or two up her sleeve. In a nice subversion of “women in danger” cliches, she fights back immediately. Endlessly resourceful, Shaun’s one mother not to be trifled with.
All this seems fairly standard with a fair deal of room to swing for the fences. Only it doesn’t. Too often Breaking In is content to stand pat and allow events to unfold in the most rudimentary of fashions imaginable. What manages to make it all bearable, is the steely reserve and strong determination Gabrielle Union instills Shaun with. She may seem like your average upper-middle class mom, but as she’s keen to tell anyone: “people have misjudged me my whole life”. Good actors always make thankless roles all the more enjoyable.
That misstep falls inline with the majority James Action keeps cutting to Shaun’s kids inside the house, where they desperately try to find a way to thwart their captors. It’s a simply ploy to manufacture mounting tension. Sadly it’s never as enticing as when things focus on mom. That’s a problem inherent to creating a compelling and fierce protagonist, but then having them do nothing for large portions of the film. Shaun may be strong and capable, but Breaking In is never sure how to capitalize on it.
This would be fine, if the antagonists were anything of a threat, or not so crudely sketched. Though Billy Burke is the leader of the quartet, Richard Cabral is the muscle. If the film were any less subtle, he’d have the word “problematic” tattooed on his body. He’s the kind of character sole traits are that he seems to love being cruelly violent to women and only refers to them as “bitch”. In a better picture, his darker qualities would slowly build up, proving him the perfect foil to Shaun. Instead, it’s just another odd bit to pad the scant 88 minutes that elapse from start to finish.
That misstep falls in line with James McTeigue’s direction throughout the movie. Scenes feel too short. Bursts of action are sparse and uninspired. Characterization is so thin that a light breeze could threaten anyone’s life. For the vast majority of Breaking In there’s little to no visual pizzazz. Worse yet, McTeigue attempts to insert a ticking clock thriller to the proceedings that’s of little to no consequence. This is a far cry from the director who burst on to the screen with the vibrancy of V For Vendetta and the propulsive action of Ninja Assassin. One can only hope a reunion with the Wachowski sisters lies over the horizon, for him.
In 2018, a new home invasion thriller isn’t exactly a novel idea. In fact the past decade alone was filled with prime examples of how to do the genre justice. You’re Next also played with the strong heroine trope, but wasn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. 2016’s Hush and Don’t Breathe employed the gimmick of using a character’s disability to mount effective scenes of suspense. Even Joel Schumacher’s woeful Trespass proves memorable, by leaning into the sheer insane number of reversals and flashbacks it cams into short run time. By comparison Breaking In isn’t just lackluster, it borders on boring.
Probably the greatest sin the film commits, is an unwillingness to give in to baser desires. Nothing about the movie is egregiously terrible yet nothing about it is good enough to recommend. That’s something of a death knell. It might be about criminals looking to steal millions of dollars and a mother trying to protect her children, but the only crime actually committed, is the theft of the audience’s time.