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Ubiquitous Danish actor Pilou Asbaek in A Hijacking

If the traditional Hollywood playbook is to be believed, piracy was once one of the most glamorous and lucrative career choices available to the average Joe. All it took was a ship, a few scurvy knaves, and a twinkle in your eye, and you — along with Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster and a host of other handsome hunks — would be set for life. And as a bonus, there were wenches and grog aplenty!

Trust the Danish to suck all the fun out of high seas misbehavior. In A Hijacking (Kapringen, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 21), there’s a distinct lack of swashbuckling, and (bar one “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” sing-a-long sequence) none of the film’s characters seem to be having a particularly good time. 21st century piracy, it seems, is a very serious business indeed. 

Somewhere off the African coast lies the rusty bucket Rozen, its sails figuratively set for the port of Mumbai. Minimally crewed by six unarmed and somewhat lackadaisical sailors, the Danish-owned Rozen is a juicy target for speed-boating Somali buccaneers, who have no trouble boarding and gaining control of the vessel.

Meanwhile, back in Copenhagen, shipping company CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) is deeply involved in a game of negotiation chicken with a group of Japanese businessmen. Charged by his board to close the deal at a certain price, the canny and inscrutable Peter wins the day, talking the Japanese down from their opening demand.

Peter’s prize-worthy poker face is, however, about to confront its greatest challenge: a three-way, long-distance bargaining session between himself, hostage crisis expert Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), and Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) the English-speaking smoothie hired by the pirates to negotiate on their behalf. Who will blink first, and will it be via satellite phone or fax?

As drama, A Hijacking is hugely successful. Riveting and unpredictable, the film features strong performances from all concerned, especially Malling. Despite appearing to be the quintessential company man, a deeply buried sense of right and wrong seems to lie beneath Peter’s buttoned-down exterior. One gets the feeling it wouldn’t take much to get him to give the pirates everything they want.

As social and political commentary, alas, A Hijacking threatens to run aground. Relegating the Rosen’s three non-white crew members to virtual invisibility was an unwise artistic decision, especially as the bad guys are uniformly dark-skinned. There’s even a diversion down Orientalism Avenue when the cold-blooded Connor announces that “time means nothing” to Somalis because “it’s a Western thing,” leaving one with the uncomfortable suspicion that he may be speaking not only for himself, but also for screenwriter and director Tobias Lindholm.

Bottom line: if you’re going to rely on stereotypes to tell your pirate story, stick to the eye patch and parrot on the shoulder routine — especially if you don’t have Errol Flynn to distract the customers.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...