"A Hijacking" is as lean, focused and to the point as its title. A cargo ship is hijacked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and this expertly done, ultra-tense Danish thriller places you in the middle of the action in the most intense way.
Gripping from first frame to last, "A Hijacking" is written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, best known as the co-writer on Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" as well as the crack Danish TV series "Borgen."
It is Lindholm's tip-top notion to have the action go back and forth between what happens on the vessel and what goes on back home in Denmark. It takes us behind closed doors at the Copenhagen offices of the company that owns the taken ship, the Roszen, as the firm's chief executive, Peter Ludvigsen (Soren Malling), deals with the complexities of negotiating a multimillion-dollar ransom with Somali pirates.
For all its eventual tension, "A Hijacking" begins in an intentionally low-key way, as the Roszen's genial bearded cook, Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbaek), has a ship-to-shore conversation with his wife and daughter, both eager for him to return home.
Back at the home office, we are introduced to shipping executive Peter and understand at once that he's a hard-nosed, spit-and-polish leader of men who prides himself on being a tough negotiator where business contracts are concerned.
Straight-ahead though it is, "A Hijacking" doesn't always do things the expected way. For one thing, we never see the actual act of hijacking, we find out that it's happened by seeing the news break at corporate headquarters.
Almost immediately, the company hires professional hostage negotiator Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter, who has that job in real life). Connor suggests the firm also engage a communicator, someone whose job it is to talk to the hijackers over the phone.
But even though protracted negotiations are the rule and Connor insists that what's needed is an uninvolved person who can "think with his head and not his heart," Peter insists on doing it himself.
"It's my job to bring back my men," he says flatly, and one of the tensions that unfolds in "A Hijacking" is whether the executive's self-confidence will prove to be justified or everyone's undoing.
Back on the ship, the hijackers, who do not speak English, use omnipresent automatic weapons to push the terrified crew members around. The living conditions get increasingly insupportable for Mikkel and the rest of the crew, as the pirates forbid access to the ship's toilets and showers.
At this point, English-speaking Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) is brought on board. He is at pains to tell Peter that he is not a pirate but a for-hire negotiator (a claim that's impossible to prove). Omar's first request for ransom is $12 million. Peter, acting on the advice of Connor, offers a lowball response: $250,000.
As Connor had predicted, the resulting negotiations are an endless emotional roller coaster, complicated by the considerable cultural differences between the Somalis and the Danes. "Time is a Western thing," Connor tells Peter. "It means nothing to them."
While his men are suffering on the ship, Peter has to deal with their distraught family members as well as his own board of directors, increasingly concerned about the toll the nonstop pressure of endless negotiating is taking on him.
That negotiating gets increasingly complicated as the pirates, who hold all the cards on the ship, play mind games with the men, adroitly manipulating them so they'll pressure the company to play things the pirates' way.
The tension on board, and on the screen, inexorably rises, but "A Hijacking" remains memorably low-key, resisting the temptation to telegraph how things will end. For long stretches of time, we forget we are watching a film at all, so caught up are we in this life-and-death drama.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Westpark 8, IrvineCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun