for violence and peril
Halle Berry, Sage Correa, Chris McGinn, Lew Temple
Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Erik H
Aviron Pictures on
It is possible to make a movie in which nearly the entire running length is a car chase. An example of how to do this is Duel. An example of how not to do it is Kidnap. The problem with this bottom-of-the-barrel thriller is simple enough to identify: director Luis Prieto has no idea how to generate or sustain tension in these circumstances. The screenplay (credited to Knate Lee) takes it for granted that audience members will spend half their time at the concession stand, texting friends on their smartphones, and/or visiting the lavatory. The only way Kidnap could possibly work is if the viewer isn't paying attention. That raises the question of why anyone would pay today's ticket prices to mostly ignore what's on screen but that's a conversation for another time.
To be fair, the movie begins with something resembling promise. Following an unnecessarily manipulative opening credits sequence that shows home movies of a child as he develops from an infant into a young grade schooler, the movie provides five minutes of whirlwind chaos as soon-to-be-divorced single mom Karla (Halle Berry) plays solo waitress at a busy lunchtime diner. In terms of shot selection, acting, and writing, it's the best part of the movie by far. Eventually, Karla is given a reprieve that allows her to take her seven-year old son, Frankie (Sage Correa), to the park. While there, she is distracted by a phone call and a couple of kidnappers, Margo (Chris McGinn) and Terry (Lew Temple), snatch Frankie. Karla glimpses what's happening and, after conveniently losing her iPhone, hops in her mini-van and gives chase. The ensuing 45 minutes of tedium is punctuated by closeups of the speedometer and gas gauge, Halle Berry saying "God" more times than a priest at mass, and a maiming or two. Seemingly forgetting that her son is in the other car, Karla decides that ramming it and/or forcing it off the road might be a good choice.
The movie elicits its strongest emotional response early in the proceedings. At the park, there's a scene where Karla realizes she has lost Frankie. She hasn't yet realized he has been kidnapped - she simply knows that he's not where she left him and he isn't responding to her calls. It's every parent's worst nightmare and it strikes home. At that moment, director Prieto has the audience. He then proceeds to lose us slowly and painfully over the course of the next hour until, when we get to the ending with its big moment and obligatory one-liner ("You took the wrong kid!" as seen in the trailer), we don't much care anymore.
Employing the "child in danger" plot device is a dangerous tactic because of the ease with which it can backfire. If done right, it can be an effective tool to ratchet up the level of tension - after all, putting a kid in jeopardy elevates the stakes. However, if attempted without understanding how to do it well, it can be a millstone. Such is the case here. No one believes that, in a movie assembled for mainstream consumption, there's a chance that Frankie is going to be harmed. This realization neuters most of what Prieto is trying to represent as suspenseful. For something like Kidnap to succeed, Frankie doesn't have to be harmed but viewers have to believe there's a chance it could happen. If the director isn't willing to go there, he shouldn't be making the film. Prieto's reticence to venture off the safe path turns Kidnap into a long slog to a predictable ending with little to liven things up except inventing a drinking game for how many times Berry says "God."
Berry and Cuba Gooding Jr. remind us that winning an Oscar doesn't mean much. Neither has had a prestige role since receiving their accolades and both have ended up slumming in movies like Kidnap. This isn't the kind of performance one expects from an Oscar winner but at least Berry maintains more dignity than Nicolas Cage has shown of late. Kidnap doesn't represent a new low for the actress (Catwoman, anyone?) but even her most ardent supporters will likely leave the theater shaking their heads. For movie-goers who have forgotten that it's August, a month when studios take out the trash, Kidnap is there to remind them.
© 2017 James Berardinelli
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