A good thriller is like a well designed game. There are players with clear objectives, a field of play holding them together, and well-defined rules that determine how the players will meet those objectives. Some random elements are acceptable, such as a bad dice roll or a fortunate card pull, but most of the game’s tension should come from players making decisions in relation their goals and the rules.
Breaking In seems to have all the elements of a good thriller. Our main players are Shaun (Gabrielle Union), a mother of two and daughter of a recently killed rich man with shady connections, and Eddie (Billy Burke), a criminal mastermind leading a team of four burglars. The players have understandable objectives — Shaun wants to protect her children while Eddie and his team want the money in her father’s safe — and the field of play seems to determine the rules. Paranoid that someone would take his ill-gotten gain, Shaun’s father turned his rural Wisconsin home into a technological stronghold, complete with steel reinforced window coverings and security cameras in every room.
After the first act effectively establishes the house’s layout and security abilities, and less effectively establishes the relationship between Shaun and her children, Eddie breaks enters and seals off the house, with Shaun outside and the kids inside. The game is afoot!
But director James McTeigue and writer Ryan Engle are bad players, who keep breaking the rules to force cheap shocks and cheers. Highly sensitive motion activated lights stop working when Shaun needs to sneak up to a window, omnipresent security cameras don’t register her running down a hallway, and windows can be jostled without triggering alarms. If the rules make it hard for McTeigue and Engle to advance their plot, then they abandon them. If the rules set up a scare or one of Shaun’s angry momma bear one-liners, then they’re back on.
Most obnoxiously, the house sometime becomes Hogwarts and develops rooms of requirement, those places in the Harry Potter franchise that magically appear when a character really needs it. When Shaun wants to cut off the power, she simply goes to a heretofore unseen (and completely unsecured) shed to pull out the breakers and grab some tools. When the kids need a quick getaway from the pursuing Eddie, they run into a steel bolted door that exists now. When the family need to drive somewhere, they leap into the empty truck suddenly in front of them, and Shaun just so happens to have the keys!
All of this rule breaking completely strips the thriller of its thrills, leaving us only with the cast’s half-hearted performances of one-note characters. Union delivers lines about protecting her children with believable conviction, but that’s not enough to hold together a character who is sometimes utterly helpless and sometimes a tactical genius. Burke and his fellow bad guys bring just enough sincerity to their roles to give the cartoonish crooks a shade of camp, but they can only do so much with dialogue that asks them to constantly repeat their motivations.
All of this sounds like a movie that’s clumsy and lazy, but not awful, and in the same way a badly played game can be an acceptable way to pass a dull afternoon, Breaking In seems like a fine film to Netflix while one does dishes. Except that it occasionally goes from lazy to reprehensible. For all its disinterest in explaining how characters get from point A to point B, the film does make sure that we know just how bad the bad guys are with several scenes of them beating up Union. She does fight back, and it’s nothing gory, but it is unnecessary. One shot of Shaun getting punched would have been sufficient. Several seems excessive, to say nothing of a rape threat made against her teenage daughter.
And so Breaking In goes from a movie with promise to a movie with flaws to a movie without a conscience, one that can’t really be recommended. Instead of seeing a movie that pulls on viewers’ love for their families to cover for its disregard for its own rules, maybe put those familial feelings to good use and stay home to play a game with them instead.