Friday, August 4, 2017

Tough Mama: Tight, no-nonsense "Kidnap" does what it says on the tin

Kidnap (2017)
94 min., rated R.

Can a movie still be fun and effective without being particularly good? In the case of “Kidnap,” the answer is yes. With 2013’s “The Call” and now “Kidnap,” Halle Berry seems to be trying to get her own subgenre off the ground in which she plays a character who doesn’t need the police and takes matters into her own hands to rescue someone. This on-the-road abduction thriller is not even close to masterful as something like 1971’s Steven Spielberg-directed “Duel,” but it’s tight, legitimately tense and unrelentingly propulsive. Whittled down to the bare essentials and the fierce eyes of an Oscar-winning actress, “Kidnap” is a guilty pleasure without the guilt, a meat-and-potatoes kind of B-movie made for audiences to get their heart rates up and talk back to the screen. Nothing more and nothing less, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

The plot is so lean and no-nonsense that it would fit as a clue on a crossword puzzle. Single Louisiana mom Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) works as a diner waitress to put food on the table for herself and 6-year-old son Frankie (Sage Correa), but her ex wants full custody. One day, she leaves work to take Frankie to the park. When she turns her back not far from her preoccupied son to take a call from her lawyer, Frankie is gone. As Karla frantically makes her way around the park, calling his name and asking if anyone has seen him, she spots her son being pushed into a conspicuous teal Ford Mustang leaving the parking lot. Immediately, Karla kicks into action and gives chase to the white-trash kidnappers, vowing never to stop until she has Frankie back in her arms.

Opening with a series of home movies that show Frankie growing up from a baby, “Kidnap” is almost too cloyingly adorable at introducing the bond between mother and son. Once Frankie is abducted and plot contrivances lock into place—Karla’s phone dies and then falls out of her purse in the parking lot—the film slams its foot on the gas and rarely lets up. Director Luis Prieto (2012’s “Pusher”) works the audience to a fever pitch and mines high-stress tension, elevating an admittedly cheap, exploitative parent’s-worst-nightmare premise and cheesy, derivative material with Halle Berry’s one-woman show. Playing Karla as a badass mama bear trying to get her cub back single-handedly, Berry gives a forceful performance, gritting her teeth and turning on the hysterics with a believable urgency that never becomes laughable. It helps, too, because the film is mostly Berry behind the wheel of her indestructible red minivan and trying to stay on the vehicular tail of her son’s kidnappers, even if that means putting others' lives in danger. She sells every traumatized look and talking to herself, as well as a prayer monologue and a kick-ass line, “You took the wrong kid!” As a bonus, the actors playing despicable kidnappers Margo (Chris McGinn) and Terry (Lew Temple) are so well-cast that one can’t wait until they finally get their just desserts.

For all of the problems it had in actually seeing the light of day—filming ended back in 2014, Relativity Media went bankrupt, and the film’s release date was pushed back more than three times—“Kidnap” actually works. Without much use for padding (and the police, apparently), screenwriter Knate Lee finds enough road blocks for Karla getting back her son to keep both her and the audience on their toes. Likewise, director Prieto gets a lot of mileage out of the high-panic situation of losing a child and builds it all to a routine climax, set in the creepy wetlands, that is nevertheless suspenseful. There is, however, a brawl in Karla’s minivan that muddles the action into overly cut bits, which is more noticeable now more than ever after just seeing a far superior vehicular brawl in “Atomic Blonde.” 

Even when the film takes such a tumble—there’s also some hand-holding with needless flashbacks to moments not that long ago, a few baffling choices in terms of editing and cinematography, and some hilariously clunky extras—it knows how to drive that line between ludicrous and gripping. “Kidnap” doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, except a competent, crowd-pleasing genre quickie that amps up the anxiety throughout and gives its star plenty of facetime.

Grade: B - 

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