Screeching into theaters towards the end of an unusually strong summer movie season, “Kidnap” is here to remind a nation of spoiled filmgoers that yes, movies really can be this bad. “The Emoji Movie” might have been a boring and brazenly cynical piece of corporate propaganda, but at least it had the courtesy to be offensive. “Kidnap,” on the other hand, doesn’t have the the courtesy to be much of anything.
A Halle Berry vehicle with four flat tires, this oppressively half-assed thriller is fueled by a premise it never bothers to develop into an actual plot. Berry, slumming it as hard as any Oscar winner has ever slummed it before, plays Karla Dyson, a divorced diner waitress who’s struggling to maintain custody over her six-year-old son, Frankie (Sage Correa).
Unfortunately for Karla, that struggle is about to get very real. Her husband, it turns out, isn’t the only one who’s interested in taking her kid — some hillbilly swamp people straight out of central casting also have their eye on the boy, and they snatch him away from a public park as soon as Karla looks away to take a phone call. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, losing a child to such Z-grade villains. So Karla hops in her red minivan and gives chase, following her son’s captors from one end of the Louisiana freeway system to the other while talking to herself (and occasionally God) the entire time.
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That’s it. That’s the movie. Most of it, anyway. “Kidnap” runs approximately 82 minutes, at least five of which are spent on company logos during the opening credits; it doesn’t typically require a dozen different production companies to fund a $20 million trash fire, but the implosion of Relativity Media proved to be a major pothole for this film, which was shot all the way back in 2014.
Of course, this kind of straightforward chase scenario was plenty of story for something like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but that film expressed its story through action, while this one uses action to avoid expressing any story whatsoever. And in this case, “action” is really just a generous way of saying “extreme close-ups of Halle Berry’s eyeballs intercut with shaky handheld shots of a minivan driving down a road. “At one point, during a pivotal crash sequence, director Luis Prieto (2012’s “Pusher” remake) injects a number of split-second fades into the middle of the stunt, cutting the film as though it were a trailer for itself.
It doesn’t help that Karla is a stone-cold moron. “Kidnap” is effectively “Taken” if the abducted child’s parent were a normal person and not a retired torturer with a very special set of skills, but the movie takes things a little bit too far in that direction. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how Karla managed to keep her kid alive before he was captured by the two most incompetent human traffickers in all of the greater New Orleans area. It’s one thing that she immediately loses her phone as soon as she starts driving after the bad guys (being able to call the cops would make things a bit too easy), but it’s quite another when she almost crashes her car because she’s trying to write down the color of the one she’s chasing.
It’s green, Karla. It’s green.
Obviously she’s a panicked mother, a mama bear with blood in her eyes, but the character’s natural desperation is never translated into believable human behavior. How someone would act in real life and how someone needs to act in a schlocky movie in order for it to feel like real life are very, very different things, and this movie doesn’t understand either of them. Even though Karla grows considerably more capable as the movie rolls along, finding the badass vigilante that lurks inside us all (“Everyone can be a superhero,” one of Frankie’s books helpfully explains at the start of the film), her newfound violent streak doesn’t make her any smarter, only more reckless — and a bit more fun.
Prieto never demonstrates the chops or the interest to really cut loose and allow his heroine to take things into her own hands, but the movie does gain momentum as it chugs along. Over time, its stripped-down simplicity almost becomes part of its charm, especially once we realize that all of that crap about Karla’s ex is never going to be relevant and “Kidnap” shifts gears from cut-rate car chases to bayou suspense.
Berry is never able to overcome the lack of a meaningful script, her work here infinitely less interesting than her turns in superior junk like “Dark Tide” and “The Call,” but Chris McGinn — distressingly authentic as the female kidnapper who’s first seen grabbing Frankie — is scary enough to make us feel like Karla is in real danger. Not that anything comes of it. “Kidnap” ends as it began: with a shrug. Now where’s that “meh” emoji when you need it?
“Kidnap” opens in theaters on August 4th.