The omens did not bode well for "Kidnap," a New Orleans-set action movie in which Halle Berry plays a single mother who stops at nothing to rescue her abducted 6-year-old son. Originally scheduled for a 2015 release and pushed back multiple times, the low-budget film has finally made its way into theaters - but in the doldrums of late summer (a traditional dumping ground for inferior product).
Yet despite limited resources, a well-worn concept and a generic title, director Luis Prieto ("Pusher") has managed to make a surprisingly effective thriller, leveraging the performance of his Oscar-winning star to convert an apparent junker into a lean, mean suspense machine.
The minimalist plot is set into motion when Carla (Berry) takes her son (Sage Correa) to a crowded playground, taking her eyes off him for one moment to handle a phone call about the impending custody battle with her ex-husband, the boy's father. It takes only that moment for a stranger to whisk the boy away in a green 1980s-vintage Ford Mustang GT - a rather odd car choice for would-be kidnappers, especially one without license plates. And yet somehow, this distinctive vehicle escapes the notice of the Louisiana highway patrol, as does the mayhem of the subsequent chase.
Carla decides to pursue her child's abductor, creating havoc with her red minivan. This, in a nutshell, is the whole movie, which suggests, for the most part, a maternal-vigilante answer to Steven Spielberg's 1971 cult classic "Duel," an intensely gripping, made-for-television thriller that pitted motorist Dennis Weaver against a mysteriously aggressive truck driver.
"Kidnap," however, is no "Duel." Straining credulity, it nevertheless works remarkably well, with its minor shifts in tactics and scenery - from boring highway to sinister swampland - providing more than enough nail-biting action. Cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano revels in the chase, as if he has been tasked with making a small-scale "Mad Max" movie.
In a way, that's kind of what this is.
The characters are mostly sketchily drawn, with bad guys who are little more than caricatures of rustic bumpkins. But Barry, who also co-produced the movie, carries "Kidnap" with a mix of determination and distress.
At a fleet and efficient 81 minutes - several minutes shorter than its original running time - "Kidnap" is an action movie with barely a wasted frame. By the final act, however, some of those missing minutes seem to have been critical, leaving a few jarring leaps in continuity.
Despite such flaws, "Kidnap" is a solid and economical piece of filmmaking. It just goes to show: A big budget isn't necessary to make a big impression.