04/05/2012 07:41 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2012

Review: The Assault

A film with both documentary urgency and an overwrought sense of melodrama, The Assault is a dramatization of a real-life airline hijacking from 1994.

The actual events occurred in Algiers, when hijackers, demanding the release of Algerian prisoners in France, grabbed an airplane in Algiers and demanded that it be flown to Paris (where the terrorists planned to fly it into the Eiffel Tower). I won't tell the outcome though, naturally, it can be found in Wikipedia.

The film focuses on the preparations of the hijackers and the response of government officials (most of whom are more caught up in the international politics than in the tactical necessities of actually taking down the hijackers). In that sense, filmmaker Julien Leclercq keeps things spare and urgent, letting the details and the behavior of people -- both those interested only in covering their own asses and those with a commitment to foiling the hijacking -- speak for themselves.

He never goes into depth with the terrorists, who are Algerian but prepared to crash a plane whose passengers are predominately their countrymen. Their motives need no explanation; this is a suicide mission by zealots, whose cause deserves no justification.

Unfortunately, Leclercq also weaves in the story of Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), the leader of the special forces unit charged with the actual assault on the airplane. He's first seen in the aftermath of an earlier mission, one in which women and children wound up dead, though not through any negligence of his.

But in the film's most clichéd section, Leclercq keeps returning to Thierry: his time at home between assignments, his wife's anxiousness about the danger he faces. When his unit is called into action, his wife Claire (Marie Guillard) inexplicably shows up at the headquarters where the mission is being run, and Leclercq mercilessly returns to her tear-stained look of horror as the attack finally commences and Thierry is the first in to face the terrorists.

Like Paul Greengrass' United 93, this film focuses on urgent action in tightly enclosed spaces, which also leads to an occasional lack of clarity when we're not sure what we're seeing. More often, the action is brisk and brutal, shot in desaturated colors that seem to show only shades of blue and occasional flashes of red.

Still, The Assault could have been better, had Leclercq resisted to urge to include the soap operatics of Thierry's story. It's solid -- but it should have been gripping.

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