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Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 7500 (2019)

To structure a film around a plane-jacking from start to finish qualifies as a gimmick, if only just. To do so in real-time edges further into gimmick territory. To shoot the entire thing from the cockpit, never leaving the cramped space for its full 90-minute duration? That is truly high-octane, unleaded gimmickry.

That’s the long and short of 7500, a thriller from German first-timer Patrick Vollrath that tracks a terrorist plot as it unfolds onboard a jumbo jet heading to Paris from Berlin. And yes, Vollrath forbids his camera from straying beyond the limits of the captain’s chamber in the nose of the aircraft, where the unassuming pilot Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) must navigate the tense hostage situation that’s fallen into his lap. Excepting an early exchange about Tobias’ girlfriend and daughter, we don’t get much more than that, a minimalist tack that suits the nuts-and-bolts approach this film brings to its procedural hijacking.

But before long, what sounds like an untenable artistic proposition proves itself to be precisely that. After the first four or five scenes, the tedium far outweighs the claustrophobic intensity that Vollrath believes the limited square footage he’s allowed himself will generate. Much of the action takes place on the other side of the bolted door, viewed by Tobias via a small closed-circuit screen; in practice, this means we must spend long stretches of what should be a pressure-cooker scenario watching a man watch a TV, or on a static shot of the video readout itself.

The whole locked-room schtick poses more integral issues as Vollrath’s script struggles to extend its story enough to fill a feature length. He paints himself into a corner once the terrorists bust into the cockpit and get the drop on Tobias, left with no other writerly choice than to rely on implausible contrivance to ease our man out of danger. Then, once things have cooled off a bit and he needs to re-up the stakes, his script clumsily goes back on its earlier faux pas, ringing twice as false the second time around.

A bravura showing from Gordon-Levitt would have to be the piece that salvages the whole, seeing as he occupies nearly every frame. He’s all cued up for a comeback in grand fashion, having been absent from the silver screen since he adopted a Kermit the Frog voice for Snowden in 2016. That full-transformation performance now seems typical of Gordon-Levitt’s actorly tastes, which have previously driven him to develop a goofy French accent and tightrope walking prowess or a Noo Yawk accent and a bodybuilder’s physique.

In keeping with this trend, his latest role feels less masterful and more effortful, offering the actor his desired opportunity to show all of the work he’s put in. He uses pilot jargon, fashions a tourniquet, does some physical work and some well-trained crying, and yet it confers little more than the impression of a man trying very hard.

Perhaps “carrying through an unusually demanding role to completion” represents the ceiling of success for such a gig, which is to say the film would be worse off with someone else. But the set of obstructions that Vollrath lays out for himself aren’t doing him any favours, when the fundamental flaw lies in the very basis of his story, not in the way he’s chosen to tell it.

In choosing to strip this hijacking of any specifics that might tie it to a real-world incident, save for the detail that the terrorists are Muslim, he excuses himself from any obligation he might have to its survivors. It allows him to lend a serious, politically charged dynamic the simple antagonism of a ticking-clock thriller. He turns what could’ve been something meaningful into just another action movie – only smaller.

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