Unlike Jordan Peele's Get Out, which installed black actors and a startling new point of view at the center of a genre movie, James McTeigue's Breaking In—likewise a horror film with several black performers—is simply generic. Where Peele's movie played around with genre conventions, this one plays around within them. There are some familiar frights, but no surprises.
The picture is a variant of the home-invasion story. As it begins we see Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union) and her two children, teenage Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus) and little brother Glover (Seth Carr), arriving in their Mercedes on a luxurious estate in the Wisconsin countryside. (I know: Wisconsin?) The property, we learn, belonged to Shaun's sketchy father, now dead. Shaun wants to sell the place, and has driven in to sign some papers. We know she has a loving husband at home because we hear her making nuzzly small talk with him on her phone. He's tied up at work, so if Shaun should need help, as you know she soon will, her man won't be on hand to provide any.
Inside the house, we see that there are four white men on the premises, a gang of ex-cons led by a guy named Eddie (Billy Burke of the Twilight movies, a little too warm to seem very threatening). These low-lifes are tossing the house in search of the late father's money, which they've been told is stashed in a hidden safe. As soon as Shaun walks in the front door the hoods melt away, but then creep right back to grab her kids, sending Shaun herself scrambling outside to hide in the woods.
You know what has to happen now: Shaun must turn the tables on the trespassers and start menacing them. And the fact that the house is equipped with an ultra-tech security system, complete with a small video drone, suggests we'll be having some fun watching her do this.
Unfortunately, the movie is handicapped by a PG-13 rating, which means there's none of the face-ripping, neck-snapping violence that a true tale of vengeance requires. Our hopes rise when a throat gets slit (although it's too obliquely positioned for us to really savor the gore), but then we're returned to mayhem-lite: a guy gets shot and bounces right back; a guy gets run over and likewise recovers in record time; a guy hits his head on a rock.
There's no racial resonance to any of this—none of the gang members are bigots—possibly because director McTeigue (who once labored for the Wachowski brothers on V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin) and screenwriter Ryan Engle are both white. This may also be why the only message here is a cliché of middle-class white feminism, of the I am woman, hear me roar variety. Unfortunately, this proposition is conveyed in the most obvious possible way. Eddie warns Shaun, "You're a woman, alone with armed men," so that later she can snap back, "You're a man at the mercy of a woman!" Also, "You have no idea what I'm capable of."
Preach! But then, a little later, when Eddie reluctantly compliments Shaun on being such a badass, she says, "No, I'm not. I'm just a mom." This is the sort of witless remark that neck-snapping was made for.
One of the puzzling things about Terminal—a movie that's composed almost entirely of puzzling things—is why its star, Margot Robbie, should have chosen it to be the maiden project for her LuckyChap production company. (Tellingly, although it's coming out now, Terminal was shot two years ago, but the company's second picture, I, Tonya, was released first.) Equally curious is why Mike Myers, who's been little-seen on the big screen for the past nine years, should have chosen this nonsensical oddity as the occasion for his reappearance. What Simon Pegg is doing in such a misbegotten muddle might be a mystery even to him. Is it possible that Myers and Pegg just closed their eyes and trusted Robbie's Oscar-nominee instincts? Suckers.
But on to the puzzlements. The movie is an exercise in film-noir tropes and stereotypes. The pavements are wet, the lighting is neon, the women are fatales and the men either dim thugs or pathetic weaklings. The setting is a nameless city (of course) where it's always night (check)—or, more precisely, a big grim train terminal in said city with a diner inside—the End of the Line Café—through which several of the key characters pass. The waitress here is a sassy blonde named Annie (Robbie), and the men she sassily deals with are dim thugs Alfred (Max Irons) and Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and pathetic weakling Bill (Pegg), an English teacher with, I'm afraid, a terminal disease. Also shuffling around is the station's night supervisor (Myers), a garrulous coot who does his best to annoy everybody.
Bill wants to end his life, and he's trying to decide the best way to do it. Annie is disconcertingly full of suggestions. Alfred—a hunk who already has Annie's undivided attention—and the slobby Vince are hit men awaiting professional instructions from a mobster called Mr. Franklyn, whom they know only as a voice on the phone. We don't see Franklyn ourselves at first, but we do get to scope out his lair, which is filled with monitors on which he can peep in on every room the other characters inhabit. (You might wonder how he arranged this; naturally it's better that you don't.)
Stirred into this lurid stew are a fat wad of cash, a disco strip club where Annie moonlights between diner shifts (sorry, no nudity), a cluttered apartment where the two gunmen wait around a lot, and a scheming brunette named Bonnie (Robbie again), who enjoys dominating bare-chested men and murmuring in Catholic confessionals.
There's a lot going on here, none of it compelling. Robbie's leftover Harley Quinn vibe is fun, and the movie's garish look (it's like a demo reel for lighting setups) is kind of jazzy. But the movie is weirdly underpopulated (you'd have thought extras would be cheaper to hire in Budapest, where the picture was shot) and needlessly convoluted (do we really need the bleedin' time shifts?). I'm trying to avoid the phrase "terminal boredom," but I'm failing.