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MOVIE-OF-THE-WEEK THRILLER: ‘Breaking In’ premise is good, execution not so much

There’s a couple of halfway decent moments in “Breaking In,” but they are far outweighed by a production that feels way too relaxed for the genre.

Who doesn’t love a good, claustrophobic thriller? A dark, sweaty pot-boiler with characters pushed beyond their breaking points and forced to plum the depths to find the strength to overcome insurmountable odds and survive. There have been a number of fantastic contained thrillers in recent years: “Panic Room,” “Red Eye,” “Don’t Breathe,” “Hard Candy,” “Phone Booth,” “The Killing Room,” and “Buried,” to name a few. Then there are classics like “Rear Window” and “Misery.” The genre can be a lot of fun when done right—or it can devolve into a cliché-filled mess resembling a high-end Lifetime original movie like “Breaking In.”

I was hoping for some cheesiness with “Breaking In.” I thought the film would have fun with its exploitative elements and showcase a bad-ass heroine the audience could cheer for. Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) is on her way to her father’s house to dig through his possessions after an unexpected death. She brings along her two kids to help sort out the estate. Shaun’s strained relationship with her dearly departed daddy makes things a little heavy and forces her to deal with some long-buried drama.

They arrive at the house, which has been outfitted with a high-tech security system that is going off. Her old man had some secrets he wanted kept and spent a lot of money to ensure they stayed that way. Soon Shaun realizes they’re not alone. Four criminals have entered the house and cut the phone line to the security system.  Mom gets trapped outside while the kids are held hostage by a random collection of criminal stereotypes. We learn the bumbling burglars only have 90 minutes from the time the phone line was cut until the security company will call the police. Can Mom outwit these low-rent criminals and save her kids?

“Breaking In” is like a reverse-engineered “Panic Room.” The criminals are on the inside and mom has to break in the house to save her kids (roll credits). It’s not a bad set-up for a claustrophobic-contained thriller.  Unfortunately, the movie never gets more interesting than the set up. The premise is novel, but the resulting story was not. We labor through Shaun’s multiple attempts to trick the human Beagle Boys and save her kids. There are multiple moments aimed at proving how much smarter Shaun is than the criminals, but that’s readily apparent from the film’s first 15 minutes. The guys make the crew from “Reservoir Dogs” seem like Rhodes Scholars.

The whole fun of a premise like this is seeing the lengths to which a normal person will go in order to protect and/or save someone. Take Sam Peckinpah’s excellent “Straw Dogs,” as an example. Yet, “Breaking In” is extremely tame; it never dives into glorious violence or allows Shaun to become unrecognizably brutal in her attempt to save her family.  There’s a bit at the end that shows audiences her commitment, but it never seemed like her character had tapped into a dark side to achieve her goals. There was a matter-of-fact vibe to the performance that made the stakes feel remarkably low.

Speaking of low-stakes: As I mentioned, the criminals in the movie are bad at burglary and intimidation. It was like watching a group meeting for drunk driving rehabilitation. There was no sense of dread—no fear induced by the sight of a middle-aged Billy Burke or the platinum blonde 20-something who looked more like someone accused of texting dick pics to classmates. The one absolute psycho in the group was so laughably over-the-top in his scenery-chewing he never felt threatening. Even the actors playing kids seemed unimpressed as they looked barely inconvenienced in most scenes.

There’s a couple of halfway decent moments in the movie, but they are far outweighed by a production that feels way too relaxed for the genre. What should have been a vehicle to show Gabrielle Union’s depth and range becomes a movie-of-the week thriller with no real thrills.

Breaking In
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Rated PG-13
Directed by James McTeigue
Starring Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke, Richard Cabral

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