The home-invasion thriller "Breaking In," the tale of a young mom 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 that the movie itself, starring a stern Gabrielle Union, isn't more fun.
Thrillers should be taut and ruthlessly efficient in their storytelling, and "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 set up before we're thrown right into it.
Shaun (Union) and her kids Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr) arrive at the remote country compound of Shaun's recently deceased father. She's long been estranged from him, and 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 twist on the "home invasion" angle is that Shaun is the one trying to break in, in order 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 repreive to lure you into a false sense of security before a jump scare.
The film privileges 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 this lean thriller. The dialogue eschews any cleverness or humor, instead stating everything plainly up front. Union gets to deliver a few great burns (like she did so well in "Bring It On"), but with such grimness that none 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. Covered in tattoos with the perfect snarl and crazy eyes, he's the best thing in the film because he's scary, but mostly because he offers something unique and different.
The disappointment of "Breaking In" is the wasted potential — there are a few plot setups that could have been fleshed out or brought back around (why was her father being investigated by the D.A.?) and Union isn't given enough opportunity to truly display her charms. This thriller could have really used some room to breathe.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rating: PG-13, for violence, menace, bloody images, sexual references, and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release