It's a movie premise that is as old and classic as they come: a break in. When one innocent family is tested by some thieves or murderers, a fight-or-flight moment happens, and they have to survive. The new Gabrielle Union thriller Breaking In utilizes those classic tropes, while also attempting to turn the genre on its head by featuring a strong woman of color as its protagonist. And while Union may lend her signature tenacity to the role, she unfortunately doesn't have the best material to work with. Because while Breaking In may attempt to break the mold, it fails to offer anything truly unique.
Breaking in is helmed by James McTeigue, who is perhaps best known for crafting the political thriller V for Vendetta. The story revolves around protagonist Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union), who is heading to her late father's mansion to sort out his affairs. While she and her son Glover (Seth Carr) and daughter Jasmine (13 Reasons Why's Ajiona Alexus) go up to the house to get the place ready to sell, a quartet of thieves have other plans of their own. Dead Dad apparently hoarded a mass of cash, leaving Shaun and her family vulnerable to an attack.
Well, maybe not exactly vulnerable. Because in addition to the cash money hidden somewhere inside, Shaun was also not aware of the intense security system that was installed in the home. Everything from lights and sounds to the shatterproof windows can be controlled from a smart device. Or two... it's never exactly clear.
The contents of Breaking In go exactly as one would expect. The PG-13 thriller provides an adventure for Shaun to go on, as she gradually becomes a more strong and capable survivor in the face of insurmountable odds. The twists and turns won't exactly surprise the audience, but they keep the brisk 88-minute runtime moving enough to keep you munching on popcorn without zoning out or attempting to check your smart phone. Although an R rating might have helped the moments of action remain more thrilling.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Breaking In is that it doesn't really have a message. Shaun has a loving relationship with her two kids and husband, and that doesn't really change throughout the course of the film. The protagonist is battling no demons, which makes the entire adventure feel low stakes, despite it being a life-or-death situation. The action doesn't reveal anything about the characters, and Shaun seems pretty much flawless throughout the movie. Or maybe it's just the effortless intensity of Gabrielle Union.
Gabrielle Union has had a long and impressive career in the business, and she does get to sparkle in the limelight of her leading role. Shaun flips between motherly rage and panic quite a few times throughout the course of the film's events, and Union carries the project on her back. And once first blood is finally drawn, Union is able to transform herself without dialogue into a warrior. It's only a shame that she wasn't given more to do character-wise. The actresses is a layered and complex woman, but Shaun unfortunately was written a bit more broadly.
The supporting cast of Breaking In features many familiar faces, which is definitely a draw. Unfortunately, they're not all given equal time to shine. Twilight star Billy Burke plays the main villain, who is orchestrating the robbery of the house. He's joined by cronies Levi Meaden and Richard Cabral. Also featured are Cougar Town's Christa Miller and Grey's Anatomy/Station 19 star Jason George, albeit in very small roles.
Another aspect plaguing Breaking In is the writing, which reads a bit basic. Ryan Engle had some success with projects like Rampage and Non-Stop, but those blockbusters had a lot more to work with. This concept is smaller, which may have been why things are a bit uneven. So much of the film is moved forward through the MacGuffin of the house's security system, which seem to be operated by both Shaun and her captors with ease. The game of cat and mouse heavily relies on who has control over the security, and what type of mischief they're causing with this power. Shaun quickly proves herself capable (even in bare feet), while her captors continually split up and argue over what to do about their situation.
There's also some moments of crudeness that seem out of place, and don't really pay off. While Shaun's daughter Jasmine is fighting off her captors, there's unnecessary vague references to sexual assault that none of the characters seem to really address-- mostly because the movie is PG-13. Additionally, there is a joke about prison homosexuality that is used not once, but twice to minimal affect.
Since Shaun is given no real room to grow as a character, she's simply referred to as a woman or a mom. It's for these reasons that she should presumably be weak, and why people have been underestimating the protagonist for years (she makes a point to repeat this quite a few times). But the character overcames no personal hurdles to eventually win over the bad guys; she just proves them wrong. She's a mother AND she's strong. While this works for the marketing revolving around the Mother's Day release, Shaun should have been given more complexity.
While Gabrielle Union give her all in fierce performance, it's not enough to save Breaking In's lack of vision and lazy writing. If you want a fun date night movie go for it, but if you're expecting a game changer for the genre, don't hold your breath.