Friday, August 4, 2017

Kidnap: Race with the devils

Kidnap (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for violence, dramatic intensity and profanity

By Derrick Bang

At his syndicated prime, Joe Bob Briggs would have been all over this one.

Kidnap is a classic drive-in exploitation flick: gratuitously violent, wholly preposterous and at times laughably acted ... but you gotta give director Luis Prieto credit for momentum, and for cunningly winding up his viewers.

Karla (Halle Berry) spends most of this film's vehicular pursuit looking ahead, toward the
car that contains her kidnapped son ... except when the baddies in that car do something
dreadful to other folks.
And for knowing when to get off the stage. At a revved-up 82 minutes, his film certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Matters could have been improved considerably, however, had Prieto bothered to find a better writer. First-time scripter Knate Lee may have delivered a smashing concept pitch, but his dialogue is atrocious ... particularly during the first act, when star Halle Berry spends far too much time talking to herself (by way of — needlessly — telling us stuff that we already know).

Berry’s clumsy, unpersuasive delivery doesn’t help the situation. She’s far more convincing during the final act, when she talks less and relies more on mama-bear fury. By that point, you should expect to hear repeated shouts of “You go, girl!” from the audience.

And you’ll probably be perched at the edge of your own seat, as well.

Prieto opens his film with a sickly sweet montage that demonstrates the depth of Karla Dyson’s (Berry) devotion to her son Frankie, from birth to adorable young kidhood. Now played winningly by Sage Correa, the bespectacled Frankie is every inch the lovable, trusting and achingly vulnerable little boy.

Karla, alas, scrambles as a hard-working New Orleans waitress and single mother, often taking double shifts just to make ends meet, and embroiled in a custody battle with her ex and his new girlfriend. Both are much more financially stable.

The latter subplot, apparently introduced for character depth, goes absolutely nowhere. It’s entirely superfluous and offers no closure. Sloppy.

A rare shared afternoon’s fun at the magnificent City Park grants Karla and Frankie some quality time, until her attention briefly wanders while taking a phone call from her divorce attorney. But that’s enough for Frankie to vanish, Karla’s initial concern igniting into full-blown panic when she sees her son being hauled into a scruffy hatchback by an even scruffier woman.

An unseen driver roars out of the parking lot, but Karla is close enough to her minivan to hop in and give chase.

And “chase” is rather an understatement.

The subsequent vehicular cat-and-mouse pursuit is choreographed stylishly by second-unit director/stunt coordinator Steve Ritzi, and this lengthy segment maintains its suspense and momentum through a clever series of evasive maneuvers, distractions, sidebar events and nasty surprises. Unfortunately, these thrills are undercut somewhat by Berry’s aforementioned stream-of-consciousness nattering. (In fairness, not even Meryl Streep could have sold these inane lines.)

The high-speed melee ultimately allows Karla’s enemies to reveal themselves, and goodness, but they’re a couple of white-trash monsters. Chris McGinn and Lew Temple play them to psychopathic perfection: She’s a bloated nightmare with nasty, little-piggy eyes; he’s a stupid, violent brute who probably delights in torturing small animals.

We’d like to think they’re exaggerated grotesques, but — frankly — McGinn and Temple are so believable, that they seem dangerously real.

At first blush, Berry’s Karla certainly seems no match; even if she were to catch them, what would she do? But this is where the actress unleashes some of the acting chops that brought her an Academy Award, for 2002’s Monster’s Ball. She draws us into the story via Karla’s persuasive transformation from a timid, uncertain Everymom — a woman who has been cowed by her ex for much too long — to a confidently aggressive rage avatar who Will. Not. Quit.

When eventually given the opportunity to snap, “You grabbed the wrong kid,” we don’t doubt it for a second.

For a time, you’ll likely wonder whether the entire film will take place on various roads and freeways, akin to Tom Hardy’s one-man, stuck-in-a-car drama, Locke. Happily, that’s not the case here; Prieto and Lee cleverly shift gears — and tone — for a second act that plays more like an unsettling horror film, particularly with Federico Jusid’s bass-heavy synth score bellowing at us so energetically.

(The film isn’t long enough for a third act; it’s just two, and out.)

The result would be a vicarious, suspense-laden thrill ride, were it not for one other miscalculation: the collateral civilian casualties. At least half a dozen random folks come to violent ends, and while Prieto deserves credit for not lingering on what must be — in at least a few cases — limb-severing carnage, the implications are obvious. Berry’s Karla displays the appropriate dismay in each case, but it still feels unnecessarily mean-spirited.

Although it’s well in keeping with standard-issue exploitation fare.

The film’s other standout performance comes from Karla’s red Chrysler Town & Country minivan: Rarely has a single vehicle taken such a pounding — endured such abuse — and kept on ticking. Ritzi puts the minivan through all manner of inventive, frame-shattering injury, but it keeps on responding, each time Karla needs it.

The best moment, and the film’s one genuine chuckle: her final use of the on-board navigation system.

Kidnap certainly won’t win any awards, but it’s the sort of guilty pleasure that can enliven an otherwise dull evening.

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