Kidnap is a single-minded pulpy trashy b-movie; that is what it’s about and no more. It’s also one of the purest, most fun times I’ve had at the movies this summer. It’s so fun it’s easy to downplay how good it is at its job.
For a movie like Kidnap to work you need two things: 1.) An actor or actress to carry you throughout the obvious plot contrivances and yet still have you rooting for them. 2.) A director who knows how to play the audience like a finely tuned instrument. Kidnap has both.
Halle Berry is an actress who has often been more beloved than the movies she’s made. Berry is part actress, part movie star. As I’ve stated before, an actress makes you believe they are the character. A movie star will just tell you they are the character and you believe them. For example, Kristen Stewart will make you believe her character is a psychic who moonlights as a personal shopper. Where as Cary Grant merely has to tell you he is a doctor and we believe him and accept him as the character.
Here Berry’s talents are used with ruthless efficiency. Within moments of her introduction as a waitress, Karla, at a nameless diner, we accept her as that character. This is imperative because when the moment her son Frankie (Sage Correa) is kidnapped from the park, we must be on her side. And not just be on her side, but also believe she is who she says she is.
Karla then proceeds to make one rash, sometimes screamingly stupid, decision after another. When I say ‘screamingly stupid’ I’m being literal. I and some other audience members were yelling at the screen in frustration. But it was the fun type of frustration.
Karla is not Liam Neeson in Taken. She may have a particular set of skills, but they won’t be able to help her with getting her son back. So when Karla chases the kidnappers down the highway in her red minivan and never thinks to use the OnStar to call for help we understand. Or when the kidnappers hold Frankie out the window with a knife to his throat, even though we know they won’t hurt him, we know why Karla is terrified.
And we do know they won’t hurt him or kill him. Movies don’t kill children. If they do, they are part of mass casualties. Secondly, why go through all the trouble of kidnapping him and then proceeding to cause at least three major traffic accidents while escaping a crazed mother if all you’re going to do is just kill him? Narratively it makes no sense to us.
The director Luis Prieto and the writer Knate Lee know this as well. This is why someone of Berry’s talents is so important. Logically we know this, so with the wrong actress, we would be too busy calling her stupid. With Berry, we can still criticize but also understand she’s a mother in full panic mode who’s not really equipped to deal with any of this.
Berry goes through all the known interpretations of outstretched hands while crying “My baby! Frankie!” To Berry’s credit, I think she may have found a couple of new ones as well. The point is we’re with her every step of the way. At one point the kidnappers and Karla come to a stand off. The kidnappers, both stereotypical Louisiana rednecks, Margo (Chris McGinn) and Terry (Lew Temple) offer her a trade, Frankie for ten thousand dollars. We know this is clearly a ruse but Karla, again, has to act in the ‘there might be a chance’ vein of logic. For most of the movie, she is fueled by pure panic and desperation.
Prieto and Berry do a masterful job of taking us to the brink of exasperation before having Karla turn into an avenging wraith on a dime. After fleeing a small town police station because she fears it will take too much time and allow the kidnappers more time to hide, she spots Terry in a different car. Finally, she does what she should’ve done in the beginning. She t-bones that bastard, and we as the audience proceed to whoop and holler in the name of “Get ‘em!”
There’s a moment where Karla is chasing Terry down the main street of the town. As a distraction, Terry hits a pedestrian. The moment of impact and the way Prieto and his camera man Flavio Martinez Labiano shoot the moment allows it to become a purely visceral cinematic moment. We feel the impact.
Then they top themselves with Karla’s next act. Seeing the woman lying in the middle of the road with oncoming traffic hurtling towards her, she maneuvers herself into the traffic. Within a matter of seconds, we have gone from rolling our eyes but understanding her panic to outright cheering the waitress with a mission with full throated glee. After taking a hit, quite literally, those airbags are no joke; she takes off after the kidnappers.
The lyric “If you’re going to be hardcore you have to live hardcore,” came to mind. Prieto doesn’t litter the movie with stylish shots. His aim is to make you clap, holler, and feel the panic and desperation Karla does. With quick cuts to the speedometer or allowing Berry’s tear and snot nosed face to fill up the screen, he clearly and joyfully plays with us.
At the end of the day, Kidnap is a pure pulpy trashy exploitation flick. There are those who will use those terms as a condescending way to put the movie down. Ignore those people; they hate fun. Kidnap never pretends to be anything more than Halle Berry in a high-speed chase after her son’s kidnappers that also then turns into her going John Rambo on them toward the end.
This movie is so much fun. It’s short and to the point. It makes no pretensions about its aim. But it’s never lazy; it just takes a few narrative short cuts. If you’re looking for realism, Step is playing in the next theater over, you’ll have more luck there. But if unadulterated Hollywood exploitation is what you’re after, then do I have a movie for you.