Being misjudged seems to be the theme of Shaun’s (Gabrielle Union) life — at least, that’s what she tells people throughout James McTeigue’s uneven “Breaking In” — and while the sentiment seems cliche, it’s hard to argue with it once she harbors the full range of her abilities in service to a story best described as some sort of reverse “Panic Room.” Before all that, though, the film must cycle through an initially unsettling introduction that sees a jogging man (Damien Leake) run down in cold blood in the middle of a quiet suburban street. It’s the first cheap shock of the film, but it won’t be the last.
Soon enough, the pieces do fall together: the dead man is Shaun’s dad, and now she’s tasked with liquidating his many things, including the massive house that she grew up in, a huge spread located far enough away from civilization to scare anyone who has ever seen a domestic thriller like “Breaking In.” Set an undetermined amount of time after her father’s death — one thing that “Breaking In” can never quite nail down is a working sense of time — the film picks up with Shaun and her two kids, Jasmine (a standout Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr) heading out to the house for a weekend, an upsetting enough experience made all the stranger by the fact that the kids have never been there before.
Despite being the one expected to cater to his affairs, Shaun was estranged from her father, and while the content of his sins (from the familial to whatever he did to apparently amass his great wealth) is never explained, one thing is clear: Shaun had to learn how to fight for herself early on. She’s surprised to find that her father’s house is now loaded with a full suite of high-end security functions, though a few of them look strangely busted up. Her tech-savvy kids figure out the ins and outs with ease, but even they prove to be no match for the four men who are about to break into the house.
The twist of “Breaking In” is right there in its title: while a crew of standard issue bad dudes (led by Billy Burke’s Eddie as the one who gets to be the leader by virtue of his ability to sneer a lot) quite easily get into the house, it’s Shaun who’s locked outside, desperate to break back in to save her kids. When she’s attacked by another one of the villains (this one is the smart, hacker type), she instantly fights back, care of a punishing and well-earned fight sequence that lets both the audience and her foes know that Shaun isn’t someone to be ignored. Her attempts to get back inside run the gamut from the wild (something about fireworks) to the simple (just finding an open door), but Union relishes each one, and there’s nothing more entertaining in the film than watching her face move from bafflement to anger in a split second.
It’s too bad then that Eddie and his bad guys are so obviously no match for Shaun. A loose assemblage of movie villains straight out of central casting (including the baby-faced one who might have a change of heart and the total maniac who seems in it just to kill people, played by a scene-stealing Richard Cabral), there’s no honor among thieves, and there’s even less logic. The foursome appears to have fallen ass-backwards into their plan — which involves locating a safe in the house, than pillaging it for a reported $4 million take — and never bothered to map it out beyond the bare bones basics. No wonder they’re so thrown by the appearance of a capable woman.
Ryan Engle’s slack screenplay tries to build in further tension through a ludicrous conceit that gives the bad guys just 90 minutes to carry out their plan (hey, that’s almost the exact length of this movie!), but it’s a dumb addition that is only referenced when someone needs a reminder that this film needs to end at some point. Even with that slim running time, the film falls into frequent repetition, though it ultimately uses it in service of a conclusion that’s as wacky as it is unbelievable.
The full force of Union’s performance pushes the film to occasional crowd-pleasing results — give this woman a real action role, and fast — and Shaun’s ability to fight back is the one reliable element of an uneven film. She’s the star of the show, forced to face off with a bunch of bumbling idiots whose biggest mistake was misjudging the ability of a woman unleashed. “Breaking In” makes similar missteps: By not making a whole movie worthy of what Union is throwing down, it features a breakout wrapped up in a break-in.
“Breaking In” will hit theaters on Friday, May 11.