A film review by Craig J. Koban July 3, 2020

RANK# 24

7500 jjj

2020, PG-13, 92 mins.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias Ellis  /  Omid Memar as Vedat  /  Aylin Tezel as Gökce  /  Aurélie Thépaut as Nathalie

Directed by Patrick Vollrath  /  Written by Patrick Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic


7500 takes its name from pilot's code for hijacking, which makes this international film, yes, an airline hijack thriller.  Obviously, there have been so many of these types of genre pictures over the decades, not to mention that some - like Paul Greengrass' masterfully frightening fact-based UNITED 93 - have an even more elevated state of dread and unease because of the events of 9/11.  Written and directed with supreme, audacious confidence by newcomer Patrick Vollrath and featuring a welcome return to the silver screen for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (his first starring role since 2016's SNOWDEN), 7500 emerges as a surprisingly tense and genuinely nerve-wracking effort that gets considerable mileage out of its extremely limited setting and the supremely committed performance by its lead actor.   

The premise of this film is almost too deceptively simple: Islamic radicals hijack a commercial airliner traveling from Germany to France.  Yet, it's pretty apparent very early on that this Amazon streaming effort is cut from a very different stylistic cloth from most other previous examples of the genre, and it's all driven home in the sinisterly quiet opening sequence, which features a series of multiple security cameras at a Berlin airport that shows the everyday hustle and bustle of passengers migrating their way through to their next stops.  But then the footage then focuses on a small group of suspicious individuals that are clearly up to no good.  From here, things begin to simmer down to a slow boil, so to speak, as we're quickly introduced to 7500's everyman pilot protagonist in Tobias (Gordon-Levitt), and we witness with documentary-like precision and authenticity him making his way  into the cockpit of the plane that he's set to pilot for a fairly routine trip from Berlin to Paris.  He's paired with the more experienced Captain Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger), who foresees little in the way of complications for their flight to come. 

These early moments are quiet stellar (although some might argue that they border on slow moving and monotonous) in terms locking audience members into the tight confines of this cockpit with the lead character, and Vollrath should be commended for drumming up a sense of immediate realism here in showing pilot and co-pilot going through all of their pre-flight checklists and security prep.  We're dealt up some personal melodrama with the introduction of one flight attendant, Gokce (Aylin Tezel), who's revealed to be in a long term relationship with Tobias, but their working relationship seems completely professional.  Again, all of this is presented so leisurely and nonchalantly that viewers might be hard-pressed to wonder whether or not they're getting a thriller as advertised.  This calm set-up, though, is crucial to emphasizing the absolute hell that Tobias and his crew are about to face.   



Those aforementioned suspicious souls reveal themselves on the plane after take-off and begin to assume violent control of the aircraft using crude, homemade knives made out of the glass from wine bottles that they bought at the airport's off-sale.  Thinking quickly, Tobias and Lutzmann try to lock down the cockpit via its steel protective door, but one of the terrorists, Kenan (Murathan Muslu), manages to break in and repeatedly stabs Lutzmann while slashing Tobias in the arm a few times before he's knocked unconscious with a fire extinguisher by the latter.  Tobias does get the heavily fortified cockpit door shut and locked, securing his safety and life, but his captain is slowly dying because of his wounds, not to mention that there's still one unconscious extremist still in there with him.  That, and to immensely complicate matters, Tobias' sliced up arm means that he'll have to pilot the plane and defend himself with only one good hand.  He manages to make contact with ground control, which frantically tries to get him to the closest emergency landing route. Meanwhile, the remaining terrorists in Vedat (Omid Memar) and his bloodthirsty and kill happy partner in Daniel (Paul Wollin) make contact with Tobias via his cabin phone (he can also see them outside of his cockpit via a single security camera).  The terrorists threaten to kill passengers one at a time if he doesn't let them in.   


Okay, two things chiefly separate 7500 from most previous airline thrillers.  Firstly, Vollrath is going for absolute environmental verisimilitude here by establishing the particulars of the airplane cabin and cockpit.  Most crucially, his film seems to be set mostly in real time, which allows for the undulating sensation of fear of what's to come to really shine through.  This is also not an action heavy thriller like so many others, but rather one that emphasizes a sinister tone and mood throughout that works well for it.   Secondly, nearly all of 7500 takes place in Tobias' cockpit, even though we get brief snippets of him interacting with the cabin crew early on.  But once the plane takes off and the you know what hits the fan, then Vollrath keeps the entirety of his story trapped with Tobias in that ever increasingly claustrophobic cockpit.  He also uses no music score, no fancy VFX or editorial tricks, and shows us nothing outside of the plane on the ground.  In essence, we are stuck in that locked cockpit with poor Tobias, who's frantically trying to plan his next move.  We see the attackers on the outside through surveillance camera, but that's it.   

7500 reminded me a lot of the criminally underrated and mostly forgotten 2010 thriller BURIED, which featured star Ryan Reynolds having to act within the even tighter confines of a casket that he's been buried alive in throughout the entire story.  Now, 7500 doesn't take its stylistic gimmick to the nightmarish extremes of that thriller, but the aesthetic mindset of what Vollrath is doing here is eerily similar.  Both films highlight the Herculean levels of grit and determination that their two respective heroes have to summon up in order to deal with the paralyzing fear of their extremely dicey predicaments.  This clearly presents a directorial and editorial challenge for the filmmaker, seeing as he has to make the film visually compelling despite it incredibly sparse interior location.  Thankfully, the rookie Vollrath, with the ingenuity of a seasoned pro, is thanklessly up to the task here, and 7500 does an exemplary job of transporting us into its minimalist setting while being creative with camera setups, shot juxtapositions, and sound design to make this film as unnerving as possible.  And this film's soundscape is soul sucking to the extreme, as we're constantly dealt up with the terrifyingly repeated banging of the cockpit door by the hijackers...over and over...and over again.  This film was born for surround sound. 

Gordon-Levitt is the other key to this film's success, and it's a small shame that this extraordinarily underrated actor has been away from the movies for nearly half a decade.  He, like his director, seems equal to the challenge here of doing what he can within the restrictive constructs of the film, and his work here is has to walk that slippery slope between showing Tobias as inordinately alarmed man at his most emotionally and physically vulnerable while also evoking a courageous soul that tries to remain calm when faced with the biggest calamity that every pilot fears.  There's a physicality challenge for Gordon-Levitt as well, mostly because Vollrath shoots him with mostly close-ups throughout because of the setting.  The actor acclimates himself with remarkable performance commitment here, and he reminds us why he's an underused commodity and should be in more movies than he has been recently. 

7500 takes some narrative detours that are more compelling - and potentially polarizing - as far as what typical examples of these types of films offer up.  There's some interesting angles explored between Tobias and the young hijacker in Vedat, who's plagued with nagging uncertainties of his team's mission and its righteousness, which Tobias tries to psychologically exploit to his advantage.  Personally, this is 7500's one area of weakness, seeing as the humanizing of this terrorist and the ensuring bond he develops with Tobias seems a tad shoehorned in too late into the story.  Plus, Vollrath has some issues with bringing everything to a thoroughly satisfying sense of closure.  Even though the final moments are a bit of a letdown, the entire journey leading up to that is pretty sensationally realized.  7500 may not have the dramatic and reality based relevancy gut-punch of a UNITED 93, but it remains an exceptionally efficient, well oiled, and authoritatively executed thriller that's as brutally stomach churning and nail biting as any I've seen lately. 

  H O M E