Just as soon as Karla (Halle Berry) steps away from her six-year-old son, Frankie (Sage Correa), to take a call about his parental custody, the boy is gone. This scene from Kidnap follows an introductory sequence that establishes Karla as your prototypical action movie’s idea of a single mother and waitress: down on her luck and exceedingly loving to her child. And once Karla catches a glimpse of her son being forced into a beat-up Mustang GT and subsequently hops into her mom van in order to rescue him, the clichés that plague the film’s prologue unfortunately tag along for the ride.
Set in Louisiana, if for no other reason than to take advantage of the hefty tax break filmmakers are now offered to shoot there, Kidnap does at least use its remote setting to explain why the roads and highways across which Karla chases after her son’s kidnappers, Margo (Chris McGinn) and Terry (Lew Temple), remain nearly empty for the duration of Luis Prieto’s film. Throughout, the camera hangs tight on Karla, capturing the mix of anger, fear, frustration, and helplessness that supercharges her reconnaissance mission. At one point, when she and one of Frankie’s kidnappers stand across from each other in a field, the scene exudes the feel of a western standoff.
One has to make allowances for the script’s inanities—from Karla inexplicably spouting lines of exposition while sitting alone in her car, to police remaining all but absent throughout much of her hours-long car chase—in order to even begin to appreciate such satisfyingly visceral B-movie thrills. Indeed, when Kidnap sticks to its nuts-and-bolts approach to the thriller genre, it’s fun and loose, thriving on the ambiguities behind the motivations of Frankie’s captors and the cat-and-mouse nature of Karla’s pursuit of them. Karla loses her cellphone in the film’s opening moments, and later is forced by the kidnappers to back off (or else!), which sets the stage for the heroic mom to constantly come up with ways of never losing sight of Margo and Terry, from switching out vehicles to enlisting the help of bystanders.
Eventually, Kidnap stumbles to find varied ways of keeping the chase alive after Margo and Terry threaten to kill Frankie one to many times in order to keep Karla at bay. The film catches a second wind, and a frightful one at that, once Karla arrives at the kidnappers’ home base, but believability has been stretched so thin before this point that the finale is unable to gather much emotional force. Ultimately, Kidnap is an efficient vehicle for the delivery of some lean action that’s frequently weakened by a scarcely whip-smart script.