Su­per­mom de­fends her chil­dren in grim thriller

Orlando Sentinel - - CALENDAR - By Katie Walsh

The home in­va­sion thriller “Break­ing In” seems de­signed for the “Pay­back Is a Mother” bill­boards in an­tic­i­pa­tion of Mother’s Day. The tale of young mother, Shaun (a stern Gabrielle Union), bat­tling a quar­tet of bur­glars to save her chil­dren is fairly bril­liant Mother’s Day pro­gram­ming (or coun­ter­pro­gram­ming), which is why it’s a shame the movie it­self isn’t more fun.

Thrillers should be taut and ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient in sto­ry­telling. “Break­ing In,” writ­ten by Ryan En­gle, di­rected by James McTeigue, doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. We’re given only a few min­utes of setup be­fore we’re thrown right into it.

Shaun and her kids, Jas­mine (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr), ar­rive at the re­mote coun­try com­pound of her re­cently de­ceased fa­ther. She’s long been es­tranged from him, and Shaun plans to spend the week­end get­ting ready to sell the house. They aren’t there for more than a few min­utes be­fore a crew of four bur­glars, on the hunt for $4 mil­lion in cash they heard her dad kept in a safe, have taken her kids hostage and locked Shaun out. So the riff on the “home in­va­sion” an­gle is Shaun is the one try­ing to break into her house to save her chil­dren.

Ev­ery­thing in “Break­ing In” an­nounces it­self as sig­nif­i­cant — here’s an in­sert of Shaun tak­ing off her shoes, her bot­tle of wine, the alarm sys­tem on the fritz, the con­trol panel for the elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled smart home. The whole thing is just a bit too tight, though — there’s no room to play, or mo­ments of re­prieve to lure you into a false sense of se­cu­rity be­fore a jump scare.

The film presents Shaun as a su­per­mom who’s al­ways one bare­foot step ahead of the op­por­tunis­tic crew, led by Ed­die (Billy Burke), who spends more time psy­cho­an­a­lyz­ing her than ac­tu­ally get­ting any­thing done. As a re­sult, we never be­lieve Shaun is truly in dan­ger. As she hard­ens her gaze, con­sid­er­ing the ways in which they’ve un­der­es­ti­mated her, we worry more for the fate of the at­tack­ers than we do about Shaun and her chil­dren.

If any­thing, you wish for a few mo­ments of camp or silli­ness to mod­u­late the dy­nam­ics of the lean thriller. The di­a­logue es­chews any clev­er­ness or hu­mor, in­stead stat­ing ev­ery­thing plainly up­front. Union gets to de­liver a few great burns (as she did so well in “Bring It On”), but with such grim­ness that none of them land with the kind of aplomb to elicit cheers.

Union is incredibly ap­peal­ing, but her per­for­mance is one-note, be­cause that’s all she’s given to do. When it comes to the hench­men, Richard Cabral, who plays the knife-wield­ing psy­cho­pathic ex-con Dun­can, is a break­out. He’s cov­ered in tattoos and has the per­fect snarl and crazy eyes to go with it. He’s the best thing to watch in the film be­cause he’s scary, but mostly be­cause he of­fers some­thing dif­fer­ent.

The dis­ap­point­ment of “Break­ing In” is the wasted po­ten­tial — there are a few plot set­ups that could have been fur­ther fleshed out or brought back around (why was her fa­ther be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by the DA?), and Union isn’t given enough op­por­tu­nity to truly dis­play her charms. This thriller could have re­ally used some room to breathe.

MPAA rat­ing: Run­ning time: PAUL SARKIS/UNI­VER­SAL STU­DIOS

Ajiona Alexus, left, plays Jas­mine and Gabrielle Union is her mother, Shaun, in the thriller “Break­ing In.”

PG-13 for vi­o­lence, men­ace, bloody images, sexual ref­er­ences, and brief strong lan­guage 1:28

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