Producers: Jonas Katzenstein and Maximilian Leo   Director: Patrick Vollrath   Screenplay: Patrick Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic   Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memor, Aylin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu and Paul Wollin   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B

A white-knuckle airplane-hijacking thriller that feels ripped from twenty-year old headlines but still works on a visceral level, Patrick Vollrath’s “7500”  stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias, the American-born co-pilot of a German airliner flying from Berlin to Paris that’s the target of Muslim terrorists.  They intend to take over the plane and crash it, 9/11 style, to protest western policies in the Mideast. 

Apart from a creepy prologue showing black-and-white footage from airport security monitors that offers a brief glimpse of the would-be hijackers, the action is confined entirely to the interior of the plane, where their scheme goes awry after the methodically-covered liftoff.   Michael, the pilot (Carlo Kitzlinger). is mortally wounded during the initial assault on the cockpit, but only Kinan (Murathan Muslu), the burliest of the hijackers, manages to force his way in, and Tobias is able to knock him out and bolt the door before the others can follow.  Tying Kinan up, he contacts the ground and reports what’s happening. 

Naturally the other terrorists, led by brutal Daniel (Paul Wollin), pound on the door, threatening to kill the passengers and crew one by one if Tobias refuses to open up.  Unfortunately, one of those in peril is Tobias’ girlfriend Gokce (Aylin Tezel), a cabin attendant with whom he has a young son and intends to settle down and have a happy life. A small monitor above the door allows Tobias—and us—to see Daniel manhandling Gokce and screaming at Tobias. Will he follow protocol and keep the door shut, or open the cockpit to the other hijackers, including young Vedat (Omid Memor), a nervous Turkish teen devoted to the mission—but perhaps open to persuasion to abandon it?  Tobias also can use his cockpit transmitter to deliver messages to the passengers.

It wouldn’t be fair to disclose how the scenario devised by Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic works itself out, but the final act can be described as a protracted one-on-one in which the two parties involved are both trying to make the best they can out of a bad situation. The only intervention comes in the form of the disembodied voice of a hostage negotiator on the ground, coming over the radio as he tries coolly to defuse the situation.

The brevity of the film, which clocks in at barely an hour and a half, is a virtue, but at the same time it means that the characters are more sketches than fully-rounded human beings.  The depth of the relationship between Tobias and Gokce can hardly be conveyed by the few words they manage to share before the plane takes off, and the hijackers’ motivation is at best boilerplate sloganeering.  The introduction of a phone call at a particularly fraught moment in the proceedings, moreover, is a melodramatic device that fails to achieve the poignancy that’s obviously intended. 

Nonetheless Vollrath and his technical collaborators—production designer Thorsten Sabel, cinematographer Sebastian Thaler and editor Hansjorn Weissbrich—succeed in creating a tensely claustrophobic mood, and the absence of a background music score adds to the sense of verisimilitude, letting the ambient sounds—like the pounding on the cockpit door—to complement the visuals. 

Moreover, the picture benefits from an intense, nuanced performance by Gordon-Levitt, who conveys Tobias’ fear and desperation convincingly.  (Even his relatively compact size fits: he replaced Paul Dano before filming, whose lankier frame would have taken the cockpit scenes in a rather different direction.)  The other performance of consequence is Memor’s: as the only hijacker conflicted about what he’s doing, he humanizes the terrorists to some extent, and convinces as a young man who really doesn’t want to be a martyr. 

In narrative terms “7500” feels rather like a relic, and it loses altitude, both literally and figuratively, in the final thirty minutes. But if the movie doesn’t soar, it offers enough excitement to fill its short running-time.