The promotional tagline for the home invasion thriller "Breaking In" is "Payback is a mother." Marketing this tale of a young mother (a stern Gabrielle Union) battling a quartet of burglars to save her children is brilliant programming — or, perhaps more to the point, counterprogramming — for Mother's Day.
Which is why it's a shame that the movie itself isn't more creative.
Thrillers should be taut and ruthlessly efficient in storytelling. But there are limits. Written by Ryan Engle ("Rampage") and directed by James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta"), this doesn't have an ounce of fat on it — which is not necessarily good. The whole thing is just a bit too tight. There's no room to play, or moments of reprieve to lure you into a false sense of security before a jump scare.
We're given only a few minutes of setup before we're thrown into the story. Shaun (Union) and her kids, Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr), arrive at the remote country compound of her recently deceased father. Shaun plans to spend the weekend getting ready to sell the house. They aren't there for more than a few minutes before a crew of four burglars, on the hunt for $4 million in cash they heard her dad kept in a safe, have taken the kids hostage and locked Shaun out.
Thus the movie's title. Shaun is the one trying to break into her house to save her children.
Everything in the film announces itself as significant — here's an insert of Shaun taking off her shoes, there's a close-up of her bottle of wine. The alarm system is on the fritz, so we get to study the control panel for the electronically controlled smart home.
The film presents Shaun as a supermom who's always one barefoot step ahead of the opportunistic crew, led by Eddie (Billy Burke), who spends more time psychoanalyzing her than actually getting anything done. As a result, we never believe that Shaun is truly in danger. As she hardens her gaze, considering the ways in which the bad guys have underestimated her, we worry more for the fate of the attackers than we do about Shaun and her children.
If anything, we wish for a few moments of camp or silliness to modulate the dynamics of the lean thriller. The dialogue eschews any cleverness or humor, instead stating everything plainly up front. Union gets to deliver a few great burns (as she did so well in "Bring It On"), but with such grimness that none of them lands with the kind of aplomb to elicit cheers.
Union is appealing, but her performance is one-note, because that's all she's given to do.
When it comes to the henchmen, Richard Cabral, who plays the knife-wielding psychopathic ex-con Duncan, is a breakout. He has the perfect snarl and crazy eyes to go with his manic persona. He's the best thing to watch in the film because he's scary, but mostly because he offers something different.
The final disappointment of "Breaking In" is the wasted potential. There are plot setups that could have been further fleshed out (Shaun's father was being investigated by the DA, but we're never told why), and Union isn't given enough opportunity to display her charms. This thriller could have really used some room to breathe.
★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for violence, menace, bloody images, sexual references and brief strong language