Instead of those tired old flowers or brunch, why not treat mom to a home invasion thriller this Mother’s Day? That seems to be the novel pitch underlining James McTeigue’s “Breaking In,” in which Gabrielle Union’s maternal instincts turn her into an overnight John McClane when her children are taken hostage. Unfortunately, both Union and your mom deserve much better. Coasting for as long as it can on the considerable charms of its star, “Breaking In” is otherwise a work of profound half-assedness, running through the paces of its bare-bones framework with all the verve, energy and invention of a night-watchman winding down the last hour of his shift. In the end, the only real suspense comes from seeing whether the film can stretch its wafer-thin premise and paucity of ideas out to a full 90 minutes – and at 88 minutes with credits, even there it comes up short.
If nothing else, “Breaking In” deserves some sort of credit for wasting almost no time on pleasantries, never bothering to give its characters occupations, backstories, or much in the way of personalities. Our heroine Shaun (Union) has taken her two kids – tech savvy grade schooler Glover (Seth Carr) and iPhone-addicted teenager Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) – to the secluded rural Wisconsin mansion where she grew up. Her estranged father, a wealthy white-collar criminal of some undefined variety, was recently run down by a car and killed on the eve of his sentencing under circumstances only she seems to find unsuspicious, and she has to spend the weekend on the 25-acre property before she can sell it. (Alas, this is no Scooby Doo-style win-an-inheritance-by-surviving-a-night-in-a-haunted-house arrangement; she just needs to meet up with the real estate agent.)
The three arrive, expositorily discuss the details of the house’s high-tech security system (there are surveillance cameras, a drone, and some sort of lockdown shield system), and before they even have a chance to order a pizza, a quartet of assailants attack. The mismatched foursome consists of sinister leader Eddie (Billy Burke, fighting a filmlong battle to suppress a yawn), a conscientious yet dim tweaker type (Levi Meaden), a psychopathic yet dim bruiser type (Richard Cabral, dialing the Latino gangster clichés well beyond the point of parody), and a safecracking former military man (Mark Furze). The latter is quickly subdued by Shaun after a chase into the woods, leaving her free to roam the outskirts of the property, but with her kids trapped with the three baddies inside the house. In case we’ve somehow missed the stakes of Shaun’s dilemma, Eddie offers script notes to her in his first villainous address: “You’re a woman, alone at the mercy of strangers, and your greatest weakness is locked inside this house.”
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As it turns out, Shaun’s father had liquidated his assets before his death, storing $4 million in a hidden safe somewhere in the sprawling estate. There’s also a ticking-clock wrinkle, about which the film frequently forgets, as the burglars have 90 minutes to find the money before police are called, having disabled the alarm on their way in. In theory, there should be a novel, “Panic Room”-in-reverse twist to the premise here, with Shaun having to break her way into the heavily fortified house, instead of breaking out. But this would require a degree of invention that the film seems uninterested in even attempting – Shaun breaks in and out of the property with ease, hatches plans whose parameters never become apparent, and manages to be exactly where she needs to be at all times, basic continuity or physics be damned.
A veteran action director, McTeigue shoots individual fight scenes well enough, but never provides any modulation or sense of escalating terror – at no point is anyone allowed to crack a smile, and even when the children are threatened with imminent death, the film’s pace never seems to quicken. Union remains thoroughly watchable in just about anything, and what little enjoyment “Breaking In” provides comes from watching her transform from an average bougie mom into some combination of “Taken’s” Bryan Mills, Jason Bourne, and Spider-Man. If only the film allowed her to have a little fun doing it.