Friday, May 11, 2018

Breaking In: Well-crafted suspense

Breaking In (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity, sexual references and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Modest thrillers can be quite entertaining, because they don’t come with the “baggage” associated with major studio productions. The stars and filmmakers are content to deliver a solid story in straightforward fashion.

Having temporarily evaded the lethal thugs searching each room, Shaun (Gabrielle Union,
right) assures her daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) that they absolutely will survive this
nightmare. The girl isn't so sure...
2002’s Panic Room and 2005’s Red Eye come to mind; intriguingly, both feature strong female protagonists battling against insidious male opponents, and against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Director James McTeigue’s Breaking In belongs in their company: an equally clever premise and execution from scripter Ryan Engle; and a rousing, hard-charging performance from star Gabrielle Union. She’s absolutely believable as a mother bear determined to persevere — willing to do whatever it takes — in order to protect her children.

The fact that she’s also smart and resourceful, is the even more satisfying cherry on top.

McTeigue and Engle also understand the most important rule of storytelling: They know when to get off the stage. Their film runs an economical 88 minutes, which feels just right. No wasted footage, no extraneous nonsense.

Events begin with an unusual prologue involving a lone jogger: an event left unexplained until it dovetails nicely with subsequent events. Meanwhile, Shaun Russell (Union) has reluctantly sacrificed a weekend and brought her children along — teenage Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and adolescent Glover (Seth Carr) — in order to prepare her late father’s isolated ranch estate for sale.

The immense house is nestled amid acres of surrounding forest; the equally massive grounds include empty horse barns and various outbuildings. Shaun, long estranged from her father, and from a childhood laden with unhappy memories, hasn’t seen the place for years. She and her children are surprised to discover that the house is a high-tech fortress, complete with surveillance cameras, impenetrable window shutters and a computer monitoring system worthy of a Las Vegas casino.

What was her father hiding from?

More to the point — for our purposes — why does cinematographer Toby Oliver keep following our trio, as they split up to explore the place, with unsettling tracking shots that elevate the hairs on the back of our necks?

We viewers are well trained in cinema technique; we know it’s because They’re Being Watched.

Indeed. McTeigue and Engle let the suspense linger just long enough, before dropping the bomb. The house has been invaded by a gang of thieves led by the quietly, coldly pragmatic Eddie (Billy Burke). He’s accompanied by the twitchy, psychotic Duncan (Richard Cabral); the stealthily lethal Peter (Mark Furze); and Sam (Levi Meaden), the youngest member of the quartet, and a guy who seems in over his head.

Their goal: a safe concealed somewhere in the house, alleged to contain millions in cash.

This exposition goes down rapidly, under circumstances that find Jasmine and Glover held by the gang, while Shaun is “trapped” outside what suddenly has become an impregnable fortress. Eddie, believing she knows the safe’s whereabouts, uses the master intercom system — Shaun listens and responds via the entry gate call box — to promise safe passage for them, if she cooperates.

Shaun has reason to disbelieve his apparent sincerity. (So do we.)

And so the battle lines are drawn: How can Shaun possibly rescue her children, given the home’s lock-down safeguards, when they’re being guarded by four determined thugs?

Well — worse yet — three thugs and one calmly ruthless plotter, who taunts Shaun the way Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber mocked Bruce Willis’ John McClane, in 1988’s original Die Hard.

Oh, and there’s a deadline. Having severed the alarm and phone wires, Eddie knows they have only 90 minutes before police respond in force. (That time limit seems rather arbitrary, but roll with it.) Which means that Eddie’s patience will wear exponentially thin, as the minutes continue to tick.

Happily, Engle is every bit the devious planner that he made his core villain. The environment is exploited cleverly; Shaun’s moves — for the most part — feel reasonable; and the kids earn respect for their own plucky behavior. On top of which, the invaders’ group dynamic is convincingly tense at best, dangerously fragile at worst; can Eddie even control his crew?

Burke makes a terrific bad guy: a psychologically astute planner who radiates invincibility and remains unfazed by any setback, minor or major. He’s every bit the calculating bastard he played so well, and for so long, as the running adversary on television’s Major Crimes. He’s once again the villain we love to hate, and McTeigue exploits him perfectly.

Cabral, in shivery contrast, is drop-dead terrifying as the visibly unstable Duncan. He radiates coiled tension and barely restrained brutality, always seeming an eye blink away from some nasty act ... which, we instinctively understand, he’d commit with a feral grin.

Meaden makes Sam the unknown quantity: an opportunist eager to participate in what initially seemed a simple heist, but who grows increasingly nervous — even appalled — by his companions’ behavior. We see the rising uncertainty in Sam’s eyes, and the tension of his posture; awareness comes gradually, as he recognizes the folly of having chosen such bad companions.

Furze doesn’t bring much to the party; Peter doesn’t rise above the rather one-dimensional designation of “brute.”

Alexus is appropriately teen-sulky and standoffish early on, before all hell breaks loose, but she later allows Jasmine to rise to the occasion: again in a thoroughly reasonable fashion. Carr, similarly, is credibly vulnerable as Glover. (Shaun and her children aren’t superheroes by any stretch.)

There’s also a nice bit of dialogue shared between mother and daughter, and then sister and younger brother.

McTeigue and editor Joseph Jett Sally maintain a crisp and suspenseful pace, with events unfolding in a logical fashion ... until, roughly, the final 15 minutes. The climax becomes too contrived, Shaun and Eddie suddenly manipulated more by script pages than reasonable behavior. Granted, this is in service of what builds to a rousing finale; and, in fairness, McTeigue and Engle have established enough good will, to get away with it.

The proof comes with our degree of satisfaction, while exiting the theater. In that respect, McTeigue, Engle, Union, Burke and all concerned have done their jobs well.

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