"BREAKING IN" — 1½ stars — Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke, Richard Cabral, Ajiona Alexus, Seth Carr, Jason George; PG-13 (violence, menace, bloody images, sexual references and brief strong language); in general release
"Breaking In" has a way of politely knocking on the door when it should be trying to kick it in.
James McTeigue's film tells of a desperate mother rescuing her kids from a group of home-invading thieves. As a "parent fighting bad guys to save children" movie, it's a genre cousin to Liam Neeson's "Taken" and last year's "Kidnap," and the comparison illustrates most everything that's wrong with "Breaking In."
After an opening sequence shows a jogger getting killed by a pickup truck, we meet Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) and her two children. Shaun is the jogger's daughter, and with teenage daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and preteen son Glover (Seth Carr) in tow, she has come to his remote Wisconsin home to prepare it for the real estate market.
Shaun's relationship with her wealthy father, Justin (Jason George), was strained at best. He wasn't a very good person, a criminal, in fact — and Shaun left his vast Midwestern estate behind at a young age to make it on her own (and judging by the Mercedes SUV she drives to his home, she seems to have succeeded).
Returning to the family home is a bittersweet experience, as we watch Shaun wistfully comb through the home's memories while the kids explore the house, which is equipped with a vast security system featuring an extensive battery of security cameras and a lockdown mode that barricades the residents from any outside threats.
Before Shaun has a chance to settle in, though, mysterious figures snatch the kids, and another tries to nab Shaun before she stabs him in the chest and flees into the surrounding woods. A team of thieves, led by a man named Eddie (Billy Burke), has come for $4 million in cash that the elder Russell kept in a hidden safe somewhere in the home, and they'll kill to get it.
From here, "Breaking In" is all about Mama Bear fighting off the bad guys to get her cubs out safe and sound. It's a straightforward plot, and, as films like "Taken" have shown, the desperation of a loving parent can provide for easy motivation. Unfortunately, "Breaking In" just never gets the car up to 60 mph, and McTeigue's film kind of goes through the motions, falling well short of its modest potential.
Part of the problem is we know almost nothing about anyone involved. We know Shaun had friction with her father, and has had to learn to become resourceful, but that's about it. When she repeatedly warns her opponents that they don't know what she is capable of, the audience is in their same boat.
The milquetoast bad guys are even worse. Eddie just looks bored most of the time, probably because he's burdened himself with a weakling (Levi Meaden) and a cartoon psychopath (Richard Cabral) who is more trouble than he's worth.
The high-tech house setting feels underused as well, but the biggest problem is "Breaking In" just doesn't have any fun. That may be an odd thing to say about a home invasion film, but consider: "Taken" was successful because it took that terrifying child-in-danger premise and added a dynamic lead character and a campy, no-holds-barred plot that had no problem lurching into absurd territory. "Kidnap" wasn't very good, but it was willing to go over the top where it could.
"Breaking In" certainly feels absurd at times, but for the most part, it's bland when it should be bonkers — a pair of middleweights sparring pensively when it should be a crazy heavyweight battle tossing wild left hooks.
For a film being advertised as a kind of twisted tongue-in-cheek option for Mother's Day, "Breaking In" will leave most audiences thinking there are better ways to show affection for Mom.
"Breaking In" is rated PG-13 for violence, menace, bloody images, sexual references and brief strong language; running time: 88 minutes.