Breaking In feels like an entire movie constructed around a couple of lines of dialogue that someone fervently hoped would become memes. The bare-bones plot concerns a mom of two, Shaun (Gabrielle Union), tasked with saving her kids from a quartet of home invaders. The lead baddie (Billy Burke) warns her to comply, purring, "You're a woman alone, at the mercy of strangers." About an hour later, when Shaun has amply proved her mama-bear mettle, he changes his tune and declares himself impressed. Shaun demurs with a perfect humblebrag: "I'm just a mom."
If Mother's Day audiences all over America didn't jump to their feet and cheer for that line, motherhood and apple pie clearly don't mean what they once did. And when Shaun lets loose the line "Get the fuck away from my family!" — using up her PG-13 allowance of F-words — it's clear that the entire film has been building to this GIF-worthy affirmation of badass mom-ness. Too bad nothing more interesting happened along the way.
The problem is that, aside from those two crowd-pleasing zingers, Breaking In is so generic it fades immediately from memory, destined to resurface for years of rotation on Lifetime. This is a movie in which a resourceful black woman uses her wits and her will to save her entire family; it ought to be notable for that alone. But the thin script by Ryan Engle (Non-Stop) and the bland direction of James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) ensure otherwise.
When I say "thin," I mean Engle doesn't seem to have bothered with backstory or characterization. Shaun and her kids, teenage Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and tech-savvy Glover (Seth Carr), have come to the palatial, isolated country home of Shaun's late father to prepare it for sale. Shaun's dad was involved in an unspecified form of crime; she sighs mournfully as she looks at family photos, and that's pretty much all we learn about her.
If Shaun had to draw on skills, cunning and ruthlessness that she learned from her estranged dad to fight off the lowlifes, the movie might have had something resembling a character arc. Instead, she's presented as a mom simply doing what moms do, and while Union makes a convincing action hero, she doesn't convey much in the way of desperate intensity.
Dad's unsavory past appears to be a mere plot device to bring the four bad guys to the house, searching for a safe, on the same night the family arrives there. Besides being terrible planners, the antagonists are so blank or one-note that I immediately forgot their names and mentally nicknamed them Williamsburg Wannabe (Mark Furze), Poor Man's Jesse Pinkman (Levi Meaden) and Full-On Psycho (Richard Cabral).
Viewers have to amuse themselves somehow, because McTeigue never succeeds in jacking up the suspense. Shooting a cat-and-mouse scenario in a confined space demands painstaking attention to shadows and framing, to feeding the viewer information and withholding it. The script gives the filmmaker cool toys to play with — the house has a state-of-the-art security system; the kid has a drone — but his approach is just too prosaic to make us hold our breath.
Breaking In is the kind of movie about which there's nothing to hate or to love; like its interchangeable title, it gets the job done and no more. While those two big applause-courting lines may have the raw energy of pulp, we never get close enough to Shaun to feel the brutal urgency of her mission. This is a meme in search of a movie.