Gabrielle Union Rises Above the Formula Plot of ‘Breaking In’

Breaking In” recycles that most basic of thriller ideas, the home invasion. The idea of having to fend off criminals from your property is never comfortable, but this movie elevates it to pure goofiness. Gabrielle Union is pitted against a gang of fortune-seeking burglars in a house designed to be a thriller set piece. But the movie finds itself with that odd tone of a movie that is not exactly boring, but never very good. This is one of those movies that operates on a check list. You have your intruders, your hostages and the lead who finds creative uses for ropes and knives. The heroine is played with real presence, what is missing is a better story with convincing villains.

The movie opens with a man named Isaac (Damien Leake) jogging down the street before a vehicle rushes into frame and ends his existence. It turns out Isaac was a career criminal who has left quite the nice house to his daughter, Shaun (Union). She drives out into the countryside with her kids, Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr), to stay at the exquisite property while trying to figure out a plan for selling it. But in the evening the house is suddenly invaded by a gang of four intruders led by a thug named Eddie (Billy Burke). They seek a safe in the house which contains lots of cash stashed away by Isaac. Only Shaun knows the combination. She soon finds herself locked out of the house while Eddie and his crew take Jasmine and Glover hostage. Shaun has to break back into the house and decide if she’s willing to give up the safe in exchange for her children.

The metaphor of “Breaking In” is clear enough. Timed for a Mother’s Day release, it is supposed to celebrate a mom’s ruthless courage in the face of danger. Director James McTeigue is no stranger to message movies, his most famous work remains 2005’s “V for Vendetta,” which made the Guy Fawkes mask the defining fashion piece of global protest. But in “Breaking In” all the substance is buried under pure formula. McTeigue’s clean, crisp visual style is here, but the whole story runs on autopilot. There’s little tension because everything proceeds as we expect, but with a pretty bare bones plot.

Let’s begin with the villains. Every decent survivalist movie needs to feature a worthy adversary, or a monumental threat that makes the audience fear for the characters. “Breaking In” throws the most incompetent, oddball intruders you will ever see in this sort of movie. Eddie is reduced to pure one liners about wanting his money, capable of firing the same handgun over and over without the need to reload. His henchmen, Sam (Levi Meaden), Peter (Mark Furze), and Duncan (Richard Cabral) are the sort of blockheads you should never plan a crime with. Sam is a nervous wreck during the entire break in, fidgeting and asking stupid questions. Eddie continuously mocks him for having “been on his knees” in the prison where he recruited the doomed soul for this scheme. Duncan is a walking stereotype of every anti-immigrant nightmare about Latino men. He’s the tattooed, knife-wielding psycho in the group. Without a second thought he cuts the throat of a clueless real estate agent who happens to knock at the door. He throws the word “bitch” around like candy and of course soon gets the urge to rape someone.  His only value is that out of the group of intruders, he is the only one who truly poses a frightening threat to Shaun.

As an action movie “Breaking In” swings from some stale moments in the first half to some decent scenes near the end. Shaun’s challenges for getting back into the house are not terribly exciting, but when she battles the intruders one on one the movie does generate some suspense. There’s a great moment where she holds a lighter over a bag of gasoline-doused cash, threatening to set it alight if Eddie doesn’t back down. But the movie is missing the gut-wrenching tension of real entrapment. In a movie like this the environment and villains need to create a sense of a real, dangerous threat. Shaun is mostly running around the outside of the house for most of the first act, occasionally throwing some firecrackers and using other tricks on the intruders. But in films like “Don’t Speak” and “Panic Room,” there is an overwhelming, claustrophobic atmosphere that’s missing here. And if McTeigue is going for satire he’s missing the sharpness and social commentary of “Get Out.”

Yet amid all its glitches, the movie still features a rather strong performance by Gabrielle Union. She manages to rise above the material and gives even bad dialogue some much needed intensity. She doesn’t play the role like a super hero, but like an actual mom fighting her way to her kids. This is not to deny her some moments of action movie coolness however. Union and Cabral seem to be the two cast members truly relishing their parts.

“Breaking In” is thankfully wise about its running time. At 1 hour and 28 minutes it doesn’t drag on and might satisfy audience members who just want a silly escape over the weekend. But even B-movies can have a certain, respectable level of craft. If you are the kind of person who watches a lot of movies, then “Breaking In” will feel like a scheme you know by heart.

Breaking In” opens May 11 in theaters nationwide.