Breaking In (1989) is exactly the sort of crime film one would expect from screenwriter John Sayles and director Bill Forsyth. Breaking In is not the adrenaline packed thrill ride of a Michael Mann or William Friedkin, let alone any of their countless imitators who dominated the genre in the eighties. Breaking In is cut from the same cloth as John Huston’s Fat City (1972); a film not so much about plot as it is about how the plot effects the characters. Sayles has a knack for writing complex characters with great economy and an eye on the genre while Forsyth can find an actor’s single gesture and shoot it to convey so much so subtly.
The film concerns itself with an old thief (Burt Reynolds) who takes a young would-be thief (Casey Siemaszko) under his wing after fate or happenstance thrusts them together. Their capers aren’t about the thrills but rather the procedures of the work. Likewise, their relationship is one of student and teacher with less of an emphasis on competition than on how to best impart years of experience quickly. Breaking In sounds like a buddy movie but it’s not. Siemaszko is the lead with the film following him through his successes and mistakes as he tries his hand at crime.
Sayles avoids sensationalism but never the genre tropes that he clearly holds so dear. Siemaszko falls in love with a hooker (Sheila Kelley) who is allowed to be an actual character with enough autonomy to not be beholden to any man. Similarly, the police and attorneys out to catch the crooks are depicted as neither good nor bad, but as plain old working stiffs. These moves toward a more believable reality gently subvert the mechanics of the genre as Sayles pays homage to the films he loves while simultaneously reimagining them for mature adults.
Reynolds, who would typically be all swagger in a role like this, is subdued, cranky, and often dryly funny. This is a Burt Reynolds with nothing to prove who, nevertheless, ends up proving that he would have been just as adept as Paul Newman in one of those late career prestige pictures like The Color Of Money (1986) or The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Forsyth’s direction of the iconic Reynolds gives the film much of its legitimacy, thereby enabling Sayles to play his coy little genre games.
Breaking In, with its early seventies vibe, simply came out at the wrong time. It has amassed a rather small but loyal fanbase over the years though it has never truly gotten the attention that it deserves. The heist with the dog is a sequence that is so disarmingly charming it proves how special Breaking In is. Hopefully the Kino-Lorber release of this over looked classic will help revive interest and expose more audiences to this gem.