For decades, one of the most common cliches in horror movies and thrillers alike has been the startling revelation that “the call is coming from inside the house.” Indeed, the concept of being trapped in your home with someone who means to harm you is a universal fear that many films have used to great effect. Yet, even though it brings its own twist to that premise, Breaking In — the new film from director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) — fails to deliver a satisfying contribution to the pantheon of home invasion thrillers.
The film stars Gabrielle Union as Shaun Russell, who is heading to her deceased father’s expansive estate with her two children to prepare it for sale. Soon after their arrival, however, a gang of thieves appears. Unbeknownst to Shaun and her family, they are targeting a safe that purportedly contains $4 million cash. But when Shaun winds up locked out of the heavily fortified house, she must find a way to get her children safely out of the house and away from the criminals inside. Let the cat-and-mouse game begin.
Inverting the home invasion trope by having the hero locked out of the house rather than trapped inside it is an idea that very well could have held potential. Moreover, pinning the audiences’ hopes on a mother desperately fighting to protect her children gives Breaking In a sort of Taken meets Panic Room vibe, at least superficially, and justified the film’s Mother’s Day weekend release. Yet, as Breaking In progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that McTeigue and his team have little interest in doing anything innovative or particularly exciting with the material.
It’s doesn’t take a film school degree to see that Breaking In is far more the product of commerce than art. Everything from the stock criminal characters (the loose cannon, the measured professional, the reluctant newcomer, etc.) to the pandering faux-empowerment subtext of a powerful woman standing her own against a quartet of men feels designed to play on the basest conventions. Add in the fact that the film features some poorly done ADR clearly designed to excise f-bombs (save for one, natch) to secure that commercially favorable PG-13 rating, and you’ll have some idea of the bundle of mediocrity that is Breaking In.
On the bright side, Union — who has been a welcome onscreen presence going back all the way to Bring It On — does what she can to emotionally ground the film and even has a few choice badass moments. As Shaun’s children, Ajiona Alexis and Seth Carr serve their purpose particularly well, turning in convincingly terrified performances. Billy Burke (sadly best known as Bella’s father in the Twilight films) finds the sly fun in his underwritten role as the leader of the gang who has infiltrated Shaun’s (or, really, Shaun’s father’s) home. Their battle of wits is the film’s driving force and, riddled with cliches as it is, still keeps the plot humming along.
Where Breaking In begins to break down is its flimsy and unimaginative story. The film mentions some critical elements of Shaun’s past and that of her father, but none of it really comes together or is fully explained. Instead, it unnecessarily weighs on the main narrative and overcomplicates with inconsequential backstory what could have been a straightforward B-movie thrill ride. Screenwriter Ryan Engle mostly accomplished just that with Liam Neeson vehicle The Commuter earlier this year, and it’s easy to see how Breaking In may have been shoddily assembled from a discarded script that Neeson rejected (notably, Engle also wrote the Neeson-led Non-Stop).
If all moviegoers are looking for is the kind of thriller that would pass for decent background noise on a lazy Sunday afternoon, then, by all means, the future TBS classic that is Breaking In might be a terrific post-dinner and drinks film to catch with your friends. After all, it’s only by experiencing the full range of cinematic experiences that one can appreciate what makes the great ones so unforgettable. To that end, Breaking In could be a sleeper box office hit and, if so, will at least bolster Union’s chances of another above-the-title lead role in a major studio project.
Offering little but superficial distraction, Breaking In isn’t even the best Mother’s Day film to see this weekend. When something as profound as Tully (which actually does speak to the vital role mothers play in our lives) is currently playing in theaters, an uninspired film that exploits the holiday with an on-the-nose tagline like “payback is a mother” is hardly a worthy film to take moms to. Then again, Breaking In knows its audience and plays into expectations at every turn. So casual moviegoers buying a ticket to this one probably already know more or less what they’re getting themselves into.
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