Luis Prieto’s Kidnap zips by too quickly to pay much mind to logic or plausibility. It’s so swift that it’s simultaneously a nightmare scenario and revenge fantasy in its portrait of one mother’s quest in a minivan to catch up with the kidnappers who stole her kid when her back was turned for a few seconds at an amusement park.
Kidnap gives you tropes: the old my-cell-phone-slipped-out-of-my-pocket-so-I-can’t-end-this-thing-immediately-by-calling-the-police-which-I-guess-the-kidnappers-were-counting-on trope, the old no-matter-how-banged-up-this-car-gets-it-won’t-be-totaled-because-we-have-car-chases-to-film trope, the old good-samaritan-gets-flagged-down-and-pays-dearly-for-his-kindness trope, the old woman-terrified-in-a-creepy-house-holding-a-knife-next-to-her-head-so-she-can-stab-on-demand trope. It gives you gaping plot holes—I cannot for the life figure how one character got to the venue at the movie’s climax from two miles away except via teleportation. It gives you narrative running in place (the kidnappers demand Halle Berry’s protagonist mother exit the highway on which she is pursuing them, and she does, only to pull back on moments later). And it gives you lots to scream at the screen about. I would not hold it against you if you are unwilling to check your brain at the door of the theater to put yourself in the proper headspace for such a b-movie (note: weed may also help in this endeavor), but if you are so inclined to do so, you may be glad you did. It’s a lot of fun.
Berry’s performance is of the go-for-broke sort that’s more confounding than impressive; with a swinging-for-that-second-Oscar intensity in this lovable trash, she plays a role where she’s alone onscreen for at least half the time barking a monologue of interjections at the car she is pursuing. Prieto’s direction is less competent, thus far more at home here: several sequences of struggle are shot so closely and edited so chaotically that it’s not quite clear what’s happening until it’s over. Kidnap, in a credit to its commitment to keeping things moving, will always fill you in, even if it takes the somewhat bumbling route of telling what it flubs showing.
All of this would make for the kind of movie that you forget as soon as the credits roll were it not for the race commentary woven throughout Kidnap, which is the most novel thing about material that otherwise would inhabit the cultural space of a particularly riveting ABC Movie of the Week (it’s very Duel, in fact). The white characters in this movie range from boorish to evil. In the opening scene, there are the rude, demanding customers Berry’s character Karla waits on as she finishes up her shift at the diner. There are the several white people along Karla’s frantic route who either can’t or don’t help her (one guy she calls out to from the road begging him to report her situation to 911 never puts in the call, it turns out).
Contrast these extras with those played by black actors—at the scene of an accident that caused a traffic jam, which allowed the car she’s pursuing to slip out of her site, Karla asks a black bystander if he has seen a man with her son. He has—he knows exactly what direction they went in and where the nearest police station is. He’s the most helpful person in the film. Also at the amusement park, a black woman attempts to aid Karla as she frantically searches for her son moments after he went missing, alternately calling, “Marco!” (because doing a “Marco/Polo” call-and-response is their thing in public spaces) and “Frankie!” “What’s his name, honey? Is it Marco or Frankie?” asks the extra—it’s a good question, a bit of sense in a movie that is so frequently devoid of it.
And then there are the evil kidnappers in thrift-store clothes and matted hair straight out of a Rob Zombie movie—they look like stereotypical backwoods Trump supporters, which makes the casting in this movie incredibly prescient or the dumbest of dumb luck, given that Kidnap has been sitting on a shelf since 2014 due to studio shakeups. It’s frankly unnerving how this movie speaks to contemporary racial tensions without explicitly signaling what it’s doing. A subtle exploitation movie, to watch Kidnap is to watch a paradox.
Karla learns a few times in Kidnap that she can’t rely on cops to help her. In the police station, after reporting her son’s kidnapping and told to sit and wait for the police to take care of it, she scans the posters of missing children and realizes: “That’s what all the people did—they waited!” She hits the pavement for the third act. I won’t spoil it, but you can guess whether what’s labeled Karla’s “unprecedented civilian pursuit” ends happily or not. A survival tale with a ferocious performance from Berry, Kidnap ends up looking something like a treatise on the exceptionality and sheer power of black motherhood—if you squint your eyes and don’t think about it too hard.