Make way for the most unprincipled fun you’ll have at a theater this summer. “Kidnap,” starring Halle Berry and a minivan, is the latest woman-on-the-hunt thriller, a genre that has seduced Kim Basinger (“Cellular”), Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman (“Secret in Their Eyes”), Cate Blanchett (“The Missing”), Amanda Seyfried (“Gone”), Ashley Judd (“Twisted”), Jodie Foster (“Flight Plan”) and Charlize Theron (“Trapped”).
Berry has somehow already made two of these movies: “Perfect Stranger,” in which she tracked down her childhood pal’s killer, and “The Call,” in which she played a 911 operator chasing a child abductor. In “Kidnap,” it’s her own kid who gets taken. Those damn rednecks responsible have nothing on this blue-collar single mom, who careens across Louisiana freeways with the fury of a dozen Liam Neesons.
Why Berry’s résumé is populated with so many movies like this is beyond me. That she hasn’t made a single great film since winning her Oscar in 2002 is a true failure on Hollywood’s part. Her shlock trifecta should be a case study in the treatment of A-list actresses (though Berry is a producer on “Kidnap,” which implies that it got her full dedication). Yet these flicks are so shameless that you almost can’t wish they didn’t exist.
At their best, movies like these are inept and trashy enough to be fantastic experiences, if you give yourself over to their unintentional laughs. “Kidnap” has all of the genre’s hallmarks: shots that abruptly shift to slow-motion, an actress whose face and hair get grimier as the action intensifies, authorities who drag their feet, frenzied crying, one deus ex machina after the next. But Berry’s co-star ― a hulking minivan, not often the vehicle of cross-town chases ― sets “Kidnap” apart. It’s just a mama and her big red wagon.
The premise’s details don’t actually matter, but Berry plays Karla Dyson, a diner waitress whose 6-year-old son is snatched from a park bench at a fair during broad daylight. She’s on the phone with her lawyer when it happens, yelling because her wealthy ex-husband wants full custody. A quick flash, and everything changes. She whips around, eyeing the park’s parameters in search of little Frankie. Her vision blurs. The crowd’s voices meld. There he is, being shoved into a shabby teal Mustang from the ’80s. She’s off, thrusting herself onto the car until it peels away. And then. Then comes that maroon minivan, surprisingly equipped for a fevered quest, which spans almost all of the film’s 94-minute runtime.
Most of “Kidnap” ― written by Knate Lee, directed by Luis Prieto ― is Berry behind the wheel. She prays (“God! I never pray to you, but ...”), she cries (“Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god, they took my son”), she gets angry (“I found you, you son of a bitch”). You know how it goes. The hustle builds toward a roadside confrontation with the backwoods-weirdo abductors (Chris McGinn and Lew Temple, both ineffective as clichéd Southern creepsters). They grow more threatening and the action continues, until they out-dumb themselves. All the while, Berry grips her steering wheel in obsessive close-ups, or else she hops out to run after the Mustang like she’s doing a bad audition for “Chariots of Fire.”
Really, everything in this movie is brainless. It’s an assault to the scenes: loud, unattractive, choppy. It’s like everyone involved ― save for Berry, who is overwrought but committed ― agreed imagination wasn’t necessary, that “Kidnap” could take us all the way to a remote home where children are being stowed in an attic and still decline to probe characters’ psychology with any shard of integrity.
And yet, “Kidnap” is as fun as Karla’s speedometer is high. Much of that amusement is involuntary, sure, but there’s something thrilling about seeing a movie that’s so flagrant in its lack of effort. It’s best experienced with a packed audience willing to laugh along. Every now and then, that laughter comes right after you’ve let out the breath you didn’t know you were holding. It’s quick and it doesn’t happen often, but “Kidnap” won’t let you off without making you play along. The little plot that exists is incompetent, the dialogue trite, the action sloppy and uninspired. But you’ll cheer, or someone around you will, when Karla gets a hold of her targets. By the time she yells “YOU TOOK THE WRONG KID,” you’ll realize that “Kidnap” has kidnapped you, too.
“Kidnap” is now in theaters