“You took the wrong kid!” Halle Berry growls when she finally comes face-to-face with the creeps who abducted her 6-year-old son in “Kidnap,” a tight, effective 100-yard-dash of a thriller that’s as single-minded as the title makes it sound. When she reports the crime to the local sheriff’s office, they tell her to wait. She studies the bulletin board full of missing children photos, some of whom disappeared more than 15 years ago, and her eyes widen. “That’s what all these people did. They waited!” she says, and with that, she’s out the door and back in pursuit of her kid.
The implication is that Berry’s character, Karla Dyson, isn’t like other parents, and yet, what makes “Kidnap” so compelling is that she behaves exactly the way you think you might under the same circumstances. Twelve minutes into the movie, someone nabs her son Frankie, snatching him from a park and stuffing him into the back of a beat up old Mustang, and from that moment on, Halle don’t stop. She’s a single-minded mama bear intent on protecting her cub, jumping behind the wheel of her red minivan and speeding after the goons responsible (Chris McGinn and Lew Temple, as menacing human garbage).
Halle don’t stop when the Mustang veers off the highway. She just slams on the brakes, puts the van in reverse and adjusts course, oblivious to the fact that she’s turned the interstate into a demolition derby behind her. Halle don’t stop when one of the kidnappers starts unloading the trunk with obstacles — not even when, swerving to avoid the spare tire they tossed into oncoming traffic, she sends a big-body SUV somersaulting down the road.
Halle don’t care about collateral damage.
There are even more egregious examples of unaware drivers and innocent pedestrians mauled during her hit-and-run recovery mission, but let’s be honest: If Frankie were your kid, chances are you wouldn’t stop to render aid to those unlucky enough to get in the way either. And yet, at some point, you’ve gotta wonder whether she’s actually doing more to endanger her son than to rescue him (the thought certainly occurs when the door of the Mustang opens and its reckless driver dangles him out of the moving vehicle).
Because director Luis Prieto spends just enough time demonstrating how much Frankie means to his mother, who’s a working-class waitress fighting for shared custody as it is, we’re right there with her throughout. Five years ago, Prieto oversaw an ultra-swanky remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Pusher,” all neon lights and self-conscious camera moves, that looked the way the 1996 Danish crime film might had Refn made it today. By comparison, “Kidnap” might as well be an Italian neorealist film. Apart from a few CG-enhanced fly-over shots (which suggest news-chopper footage of a police chase), the camera sticks close to Karla, shaking enough to make the action feel immediate without leaving us carsick.
Screenwriter Knate Lee has helpfully anticipated the most obvious logical questions audiences might have (like, why doesn’t she just use her cell phone, or how much gas does she have in her tank anyway?), which makes it harder than you might think for would-be hecklers to twist Halle’s ordeal into an object of ridicule. Without an ounce of fat on its 81-minute running time, we never learn enough about the character to guess why custody might be in danger, but as played by Berry, the actress’ star persona fills in the blanks: She’s convincingly tough, yet humanly vulnerable — an everyday hero pushed to super extremes, powered by a formidable combination of adrenaline and maternal instinct. (Her offroad-ready minivan, on the other hand, can tax credibility at times, and frequent shots of the speedometer reveal her well below the speed limit.)
The challenge of a film like “Kidnap” is to put audiences in Karla’s head, bypassing distractions to focus on the kind of spur-of-the-moment decisions that might plausibly result in getting Frankie back. But assuming she actually manages to catch the Mustang, what does she hope to do then? Without giving too much away (though it’s hard to spoil what the movie leaves mostly to the imagination anyway), the kidnappers aren’t looking for a ransom. They answer to someone with deeper pockets and darker intentions, which makes this a far scarier prospect: It means that when forced into a corner, they’re not opposed to killing Karla, or her son, or anyone who gets in their way.
Karla doesn’t have a plan, but she can adapt in a flash, which makes her something of a real-world wonder woman — especially any time one of the kidnappers dares to reach into or climb aboard her minivan. She’s the complete antithesis of the ambivalent parents seen in “Loveless,” a grim Russian art film that premiered at Cannes in which a divorcing couple fail to notice when their son goes missing (although film critics are probably the only people who’d actually see both movies, which operate on opposite ends of the art-trash continuum). Still, it’s undeniably more engaging to watch an almost real-time account of a mother fighting to get back her son than it is to ponder the conditions under which such a child might disappear unobserved.
How lucky that Karla was there to see the green Mustang leaving the park! And how unlucky for its drivers that they took the wrong kid.