Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018
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BREAKING IN: Mom Can’t Save This Mess

With a severe lack of thrills and a shortchanged main character, Breaking In fails in nearly every regard.

As our superheroes diversify, audiences have rejoiced in feeling more included and empowered than ever before. It makes sense, then, that someone noted the joy of this phenomenon and thought about extending it to dear old mom. We all know that mothers are badasses, and as many parts of the world celebrate Mother’s Day, giving them a bit of butt kicking wish fulfillment might seem like an excellent gift.

Unfortunately, Breaking In is not a gift worth giving. It promises all you want with its mother protecting her kids scenario, a reverse Panic Room where the children are trapped inside an insanely secure home with thieves while Gabrielle Union is stuck outside.

It’s a premise that makes it sound like Union will show her love by dispatching bad guys, something I am very down to see. I don’t even demand it be smart as long as it’s a good-natured rejoice in a mother’s triumph. But instead, Breaking In is the kind of dumb where the fortress doors are constantly left open, and there’s just not any fun in overcoming that level of incompetence. Except, of course, the joy of leaving this interminable movie.

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

The stupidity of the thieves is but one symptom of this film’s rancid core, which pervades nearly every aspect of the production. That makes it hard to narrow down who is to blame, and one begins to wonder whether everyone or no one should be singled out.

BREAKING IN: Even Mom Can't Save This Mess

source: Universal Pictures

Take the film’s opening, for example. It’s a simple sequence where a man goes for a jog, but it’s been edited so choppily that it becomes a disorienting, comical mess. Was director James McTeigue trying and failing to get the audience off balance from the start? Was editor Joseph Jett Sally working too hard to build some quick tension? Or was the actor simply incapable of running more than ten paces at a time? Whatever the cause, the scene takes on the laughable air of someone pretending to be out of breath, and instead of instilling a sense of dread or menace, it leaves one suspect that the rest of the film will be able to pull anything off.

Things never recover from that inauspicious start, as the setup reveals how bare bones the film will be. Writer Ryan Engle highlights key aspects of the home’s security with the subtlety of a car alarm, and never bothers to make characters more than a sketch. The four thieves have such a paucity of personality that I will refer to them only by these two-word descriptions going forward: chilly leader, psychotic minority, conflicted tweaker, and discount Moby. Shaun (Union) and her children get little more than that, as her son (Seth Carr) is nothing but a cowering pawn while her daughter (Ajiona Alexus) gets a spunky personality that comes and goes as convenient. Union oddly gets a bit of background to work with, but either she or Engle (or both) forget to give that information a payoff, or perhaps it was cut for some inexplicable reason.

I’m tempted to think this film is a confluence of bad decisions, one that started deep in pre-production and snowballed into the mess that ends up before you. A real team effort, I guess, one that I doubt anyone is fighting to take credit for.

Don’t Hit As Hard As You Can

Perhaps my labeling one of the thieves as the psychotic minority caught your eye, either because it hints at some extreme violence or because noting a character’s sociological status seemed unimportant. Both aspects are painfully relevant to that character, though, and the way poor Richard Cabral is stuck playing the psychotic minority is a nice distillation of how this film mishandles its tone.

BREAKING IN: Mom Can't Save This Mess

source: Universal Pictures

Cabral’s character is a wealth of clichés, the overdone big bad that drags the entire film too deep into darkness. Nothing he does is shown in great detail, but his blunt speech and ever-present knife is menacing enough to push the threat level past thrillingly fun. Yes, the film needs real stakes, but the bad guys also need to be the type of people a mom can theoretically handle. It’s unsurprising when Shaun subdues discount Moby, but how is she supposed to overcome a leering, volatile goon straight out of central casting?

It’s a question the film cheats around instead of answers, repeatedly drawing itself into corners it can’t reasonably get out of. Psychotic minority is simply too violent and too threatening to be a realistic win for mom, and chilly leader doesn’t end up being much better. The audience is supposed to be mildly sympathetic towards conflicted tweaker (a pathetic twinge is in his DNA, after all), which leaves you with almost nothing to genuinely celebrate by the end. Shaun’s triumphs should be cheer-worthy moments, but the high threat level makes them into moments of relief instead.

Lip Service At Best

The filmmakers were aware that they needed to elevate Shaun to superhero status. In fact, they seem to be painfully aware of it, handling the theme of an unexpectedly strong woman with the same bluntness they apply to everything else in the film. In case you miss it, Billy Burke’s chilly leader explicitly states it several times, grumbling lines with an inexplicably thoughtful point of view for a guy concerned with stealing some dough.

BREAKING IN: Mom Can't Save This Mess

source: Universal Pictures

The problem is that this theme is never backed up by action. Shaun could be the most clever character in the whole movie, but when the bad guys keep leaving doors open, she doesn’t really need to be clever, does she? The film hands her too many easy solutions, and the few times the filmmakers try to get inventive, it just comes off as dumb. Psychotic minority almost catches her in the hallway? She can somehow cling to the side of the stairs. Discount Moby comes at her out of nowhere? Good thing there’s shards from a broken wine glass handy.

The film is allegedly about letting a mom’s fierceness shine through, but it never gives its mom the space to do so. It leads her by the hand, undercutting her power and making her little more than a pawn in a rudimentary chess game.

Breaking In: A Lethargic Disappointment

With a severe lack of thrills and a shortchanged main character, Breaking In fails in nearly every regard. It is not the story of a strong, triumphant mom. It’s not even a subversion of home invasion thrillers. It’s a dull, tiresome series of inexplicable events and familiar clichés, one that really only evokes those infamous America’s Next Top Model lines: I was rooting for Breaking In. We were all rooting for Breaking In. How dare they.

Do you think Breaking In gave us a truly badass mom? Let us know in the comments!

Breaking In was released in the US and the UK on May 11th, 2018. For international release dates, click here.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Emily is a film addict, TV aficionado, and book lover. She's currently in training to become a crazy cat lady.

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