How to Make a Hijacking Movie
I’m a sucker for a lot of things: puppies, kids, people who start their sentences with “I need a favour”. I’m also a sucker for three sub-genres of film in particular: disaster movies, kidnapping movies, and hijacking/hostage movies. Maybe I’m just drawn to the idea of playing for high stakes. Maybe it’s the idea that not everyone is going to make it to the end of the film. Maybe it’s even about the hero (or occasional anti-hero) has his own score to settle. Whatever the case, I love them. One of the things that makes hijacking films great in particular is its simplicity.
When it comes to a hijacking, you have a limited number of options. Traditionally, hijacking films revolve around some kind of transportation, which means car, train, plane or boat. The idea is to choose a type of transportation and use that transportation to your advantage. In Air Force One, a band of terrorists steal the President’s plane with the President on board. That’s an excellent scenario. You can go just about anywhere you want, especially with the kind of hostages you can find on board. In The Taking of Pelham 123, a subway train is hijacked. Because of their location underground, the hijackers can see anyone trying to approach and take them down. The idea is to make good use of the transportation vehicle you pick. Refuelling can be an issue. Accessing the hijackers can be a problem. And of course, when using transportation, it adds the element of sympathy to the passengers, who were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
There’s nothing worse than getting caught in the crossfire for no logical reason, other than the fact that someone just happened to be there. In hijacking situations, it usually follows that when complete strangers are caught in this kind of an unplanned situation, our sympathy immediately ties us to them. There’s an immediate drama created when this happens. If you’re making a hijacking film, you need to use this. As a viewer, I’m already tied to this group of people through sympathy. Want to draw me in even further? Give them personality. Single out their reactions. Make them hold on tighter to their kids. Have them think aloud of the things they’re going to do when they get out of the situation (or, if you want to go darker, the things they won’t be able to do if they die there). And most importantly, make them human. Let them make bad mistakes and good choices. Think of the trapped prisoner who makes the final decision on their bomb situation in The Dark Knight. I like to think of the stroke of brilliance that someone had in creating the sleeping hostage in The Taking of Pelham 123. Not only does she sleep through the whole hijacking, but she snores at times. As a viewer, I’m connected to her, because the last thing I want her to do is wake up.
I’ve always found that movies are usually only as strong as their heroes and villains. Sure, there can be a lot of secondary characters who steal the show, or the concept can be great, but I don’t really connect or feel anything unless the main characters are strong enough. Take Ed Harris’s character in The Rock. His villain is a man on a mission. He has the drive, the skills, and the support. In hijacking films, it’s all about the balance and the bargaining: what or who can you get for what. After all, that’s what a hijacking is usually about – taking something in exchange for something else. The best villains are the ones that almost always have nothing to lose, show no remorse, and have a troop of unwavering supporters to help them in that goal. Take the opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises, or Gary Oldman in Air Force One. Just look at how psychotic Dennis Hopper’s character is in Speed, or Robert Shaw in Pelham. Give him just a hint of humanity, and then let the audience do the rest. If you want me to take your villain seriously, have him mean serious business. What makes a perfect conflict is when you can see both sides of the argument. Give me a villain like that. Oh, and incidentally, an intimidating voice, with or without an accent, never hurts either.
Superheroes are the guys who run into the burning buildings because they want to. Real heroes, at least for me, are the ones without superpowers who rise to the occasion because they have to. They do what they can with what they have. If you had told me that Walter Matthau of all those Grumpy Old Men comedy movies was playing the hero in Pelham, I’d have never believed you. But he does. Somebody like Nicholas Cage’s character in The Rock, who is little more than a scientist, needs to step forward. The most classic example is Bruce Willis’s John McClane in Die Hard (which is more hostage than hijacking). He verbalizes aloud to himself of how he doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t want this happening. It’s hard for me to relate to heroes when they know how heroic they’re being. I’m more than ready to root for the little guy instead, the guy who doesn’t want to be in that position but has to, and needs my support as an audience member to just stay with him while he figures this out. Look at Harrison Ford in Air Force One. I can’t really relate to the problems of being a president, but relating to him as a man whose wife and daughter are in danger? That I can do.
So there’s your formula. Pick a mode of transportation and make the most of it. Have a villain with an understandable agenda and a reluctant but sympathetic hero. Add to that a group of innocent hostages who did little more than climb on board their plane or bus, and you’ve got the basic recipe for a hijacking blockbuster.
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