In Taken and its clones, bad guys realize they’ve messed with the wrong family when it turns out that Liam Neeson has a particular set of skills. Skills gleaned from a lifetime of… I don’t remember, being a secret agent assassin or something. In this new gender-swapped version, pioneered last year by Halle Berry in Kidnap and now genericized further by Gabrielle Union in Breaking In, the bad guys realize they’ve messed with the wrong family when it turns out the mom has a particular set of skills. Skills gleaned from a lifetime of… well, being a mom.
That’s really it. There’s no backstory. Average moms turn into badasses when their kids are threatened because moms love their kids. It’s like a cross between Taken and one of those greeting cards about how being a mom is the toughest job in the world. And one of Sarah Palin’s quotes about hockey moms and pit bulls. It’s the action movie equivalent of Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying “Administration in chaos? You want to see chaos, come meet my preschoolers!” (Sidenote: are all obnoxious moms named “Sarah?”)
Moms can do anything! Hooray, moms! It sounds flattering on the surface, but it’s really just the same old gender roles masquerading as empowerment (and Breaking In screenwriter Ryan Engle wrote two of the Neeson versions, The Commuter and Non-Stop). Dads get to have secret lives, as secret agent assassins or something. They get levels, identities separate from their familial responsibilities, backstories beyond just “he made offspring.” Moms… well moms are just moms. Why would you ever need to be more than a mom? Being a mom is the best thing a person can be! Hooray for my own incredibly narrow conception of motherhood!
Even if I was going to buy into this idea that simply being a mom prepares you to be a badass action hero (and to be fair I’ve bought into a lot worse premises), Gabrielle Union’s character never really does anything badass. She’s the hero we learn nothing about. I can’t tell if she’s supposed to be tough or clever or streetwise. She certainly isn’t wisecracking (the film’s idea of good dialogue: “I’m the mom. It’s not your job to take care of me. It’s my job to take care of you.”). The main bad guy (a glowering Billy Burke) keeps telling her she’s “an impressive woman,” but we’re not exactly sure why.
It’s hard to tell if the problem is that the filmmaker’s conception of “mom” is simply too narrow to allow for “badass,” even when it’s required — and what are we watching this for if not to see the mom being badass? — or if the problem is simple ineptitude. The plot is that Gabrielle Union’s character, Shaun Russell (Union also produced), along with her two kids, has to go out to the country to oversee the sale of her estranged father’s house, which turns out to be kind of a fortress, complete with retractable polycarbonate shields on the windows, cameras everywhere, motion detectors, and a centralized security system controllable by a tablet. We get hints that Shaun’s father was into “some bad stuff.” Whether that means he was a criminal or just a regular robber baron we never find out.
The odd thing is that neither Shaun’s nor her father’s backstory nor their relationship ever play into the ensuing plot in any meaningful way. Making us wonder why they bothered telling us at all. The group of thugs that show up — a bleach-blond softie, a tatted-up cholo hardass, and a smooth-talking heavy — don’t draw on anything specific either, and could just as easily have come from any random Law and Order episode and/or Brinks Home Security commercial. One guy’s soft, one guy’s hard, one guy is a real pro who only talks in a soothing near-whisper, the ASMR heavy. He also, interestingly, uses the word “frickin!” when he’s angry, even after proving himself capable of murder. In any case, no one seems to be having much fun. (The guy two seats over from me snored, loudly.)
Even on a technical level Breaking In is shockingly inept. It was supposedly directed by V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, a veteran, but it feels like it was choreographed by someone late for lunch. Certainly, I’ve seen action sequences where I couldn’t tell what was happening before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen slow motion action sequences where I couldn’t tell what was happening.
You have to wonder who the driving creative force behind Breaking In was, because the whole thing, from the acting to the writing to the directing, smacks of someone trying to complete an assignment they didn’t much enjoy. Turns out, that’s not much fun for us either.