A fax machine is the big star in this nerve-shredding high seas procedural.
One of the iconic moments in evergreen Hollywood action caper Die Hard revolves around a supporting character by the name of Ellis – a bearded, suit-wearing swine who, when not trying to bed John McClane’s better half, is one of the executives of the besieged Nakatomi Corporation. While McClane is waging guerilla war with terrorists in the air vents of a skyscraper, Ellis has a bright idea: he could make a deal with them. After all, in his words, "I negotiate million-dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Eurotrash."
It didn’t end well for Ellis. But 25 years later, Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm picks a unnervingly similar set up for A Hijacking, a visceral thriller that reconstructs the siege genre as a gut-wrenching collision of immediate threat and long-distance tension. Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), a cook on a Danish freight liner, is on his way home after a literal long-haul from Europe to Asia. But when the ship is stormed by Somali pirates, he and the rest of the crew’s homecomings are indefinitely delayed.
Back at head office, they’re stunned. A negotiations specialist is brought in and he has one piece of advice: don’t do it yourself. Employ someone who is suitably distanced from the situation, from the assets and, above all, from the workers. But CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) – who we first see sealing the deal on a hard-ball business plan with some Japanese suits, shaving off millions with a flash of his Nordic poker face – has a different plan. No, it’s his company, his employees – he’ll handle the negotiations himself.
From Aliens' Burke (Paul Reiser) to RoboCop’s Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), the white-collar stooge was vilified and satirised throughout ’80s popular cinema, caricatured as a spineless jackal who would fuck anyone over for a percentage. Lindholm, however doesn’t pass judgement on Ludvigsen.
In fact, what starts as a very Ellis-like folly – these are pirates after all – develops into a subtly shaped hero’s journey, with the CEO facing up to hubris, responsibility, humility and an eventual Pyrrhic victory. Employing a very flexible, naturalistic shooting style, the action cuts between the quiet cleanliness of the Denmark offices and the grubby ship, offering two very different aspects on the same problem.
As the hijacking drags on for three months, Mikkel endures the powder-keg unease which is made no more comfortable by the language barrier that separates him from his AK 47-toting captors. Meanwhile, Ludvigsen navigates the tricky diplomatic waters of negotiation.
While there is much terror and trauma on the ship, Lindholm wrests just as much tension from conference calls and arguably some of the most gripping fax machine work ever seen on the big screen. A Hijacking, ironically, takes no prisoners. One might expect such a smart, compelling film from Lindholm, who wrote The Hunt and much of TV serial Borgen.
But to find such a radical riposte to the Hollywood thriller – and a rehabilitation of a decades-old stereotype – is a genuine surprise. It’s hardly Eurotrash but, like Ellis found with Hans Gruber, this is much more than we bargained for.
The writer behind Borgen and The Hunt embarks on his own high-seas thriller.
Brilliantly takes the audience hostage with its halfonboard, half-boardroom narrative pincer movement.
Harrowing. A Hijacking may last only a shade under 100 minutes, but the memory, like the captives’ trauma, will last much longer.