Danish thriller A Hijacking arrives on Blu Ray closely aligned with the theatrical release of Tom Hanks' docudrama Captain Phillips. Coincidence? Perhaps Magnolia was hoping to capitalize on some of the hype from the Hanks film, but this one presents a darker, less dynamic take on the rash of ocean hijackings off the coast of Somalia soaking up the headlines in recent years. Unlike Captain Phillips, this 2012 film was not based on a true-life incident - the film's documentary-like immediacy makes it a bracingly realistic experience, however. The added realism also makes it a little more boring than it should have been, for better or worse. The film takes on its subject in the same manner that veterans speak of serving in combat - like war, a real hijacking is 5% action and 95% waiting for something to happen.
A Hijacking's dramatic thrust lies not so much with the hijacking itself (which is over within a few scenes). The months-long ordeal of negotiating terms, agreeing on a ransom amount, and getting the ship's crew safely released takes up the bulk of its story. The result is a film which has a wide scope, yet mainly focuses on three core characters: the CEO of the company who owns the ship, the hijackers' negotiator, and the ship's cook who winds up being the unlikely hero of the story. The film opens on a Danish cargo ship en route to India for a delivery, with crew member Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk) assuring his wife over the phone that he will be home in time for their daughter's birthday. That little domestic respite is soon interrupted, however, as armed Somali pirates storm the ship, forcing Mikkel and the handful of other crew members into a tiny stateroom while they contact the ship's owner with their demands for their release.
From here on out, A Hijacking becomes a grim back-and-forth between the deplorable conditions on the hot, claustrophobic ship and the negotiations at the shipping company headquarters in Copenhagen. The pirates have a translator and mediator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who is there to keep the crewmen in line while telephoning the pirates' needs to Copenhagen. When the initial ransom sum of fifteen million dollars reaches the offices of company CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), he reacts with a counter-offer set at the ridiculously low sum of $250,000. The pirates react by treating Mikkel and his fellow crewman like animals, the ship's captain being incapacitated with an ulcer and stifling quarters in which the men aren't even permitted bathroom use. As the days turn into weeks and months, however, Mikkel and the crew are gradually allowed certain freedoms from Omar (who insists that he's a hired hand, having nothing to do with the pirates' agenda). Mikkel's ship-mate, Jan (Roland Møller), teaches the pirates how to fish, and the group eventually gets smashed together. Meanwhile, back in Copenhagen, Peter Ludvigsen is starting to lose his businesslike composure as the negotiations over these men's lives becomes a matter of the right dollar amount scrawled on a fax.
A Hijacking is a cold, unmistakably realistic film, which is precisely where its faults lie. Although the script isn't based on any particular hijacking, the producers took many steps toward making it as true-to-life as possible. This included shooting on an actual ship involved in a Somali hijacking with crew members as extras, and casting a real-life corporate security manager, Gary Skjolkmose-Porter, in the role of the British adviser whom Peter Ludvigsen hires to tactfully deal with the pirates (for a non-actor, he does a great job). Director Tobias Lindholm unfortunately keeps all the characters at arm's length, so the viewer never truly understands what makes them tick. Contrasting Mikkel's humanity with Peter's cold precision was a solid idea, yet in the end we don't get involved enough in their travails to invest very much in it (contrast that with United 93, which managed to make the smallest characters human enough to engage with). One can be thankful that Lindholm didn't choose to give the film a typical Hollywood "inspirational" spin, but the way it turned out is strangely lacking in emotional resonance. And that cynical ending? Brrrr.
A heads-up for animal lovers: A Hijacking also contains a disturbing scene in which Mikkel is forced to slaughter a goat which the Somalis brought on board the ship. Although much of the carnage happens off screen, the film makes it obvious that a live animal was killed.
The Blu Ray:
A Hijacking was photographed in a deliberately cool manner which de-emphasizes color saturation and uses filtered lighting whenever possible. The Blu Ray's 1.78:1 image captures the photography well with an image that, although not particularly outstanding, has a pleasant texture and clarity.
Spoken partially in Danish and English, the disc's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track preserves the film's dialogue in a pristine mix (the film uses no musical scoring). Along with automatic English subtitles on the foreign-language scenes, the disc also offers subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.
Five Behind the Scenes Featurettes, totaling about 14 minutes in length, are included. These bits have something of a phony, promotional feel (made for the Danish version of HBO?), but they contain a few choice tidbits on the production. The disc also comes with the ability to bookmark your place in the film and additional content for players with BD-Live capability. Along with the film's theatrical trailer, previews for other Magnolia Pictures releases round out the disc's bonus content.
If you're in the market for a taut, realistic thriller (and don't mind a film mostly spoken in Danish), A Hijacking's portrayal of a cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates makes for a decent watch. Director Tobias Lindholm oversaw this tense drama in a quasi-documentary style similar to what Paul Greengrass did with United 93, but dodgy choices and a flagging pace make this the inferior film of the two. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.