Aside from a couple voice cameos in Rian Johnson movies, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been absent from feature films since 2016’s Snowden. Rather than return with a big, splashy role, his first new film, 7500, is a small-scale, taut thriller that still showcases why Gordon-Levitt is one of our most talented young actors working today. A film that takes places almost entirely in the cockpit of an airplane, Gordon-Levitt carries all the emotional stakes of the picture on his back, and he makes it look effortless. Paired with Patrick Vollrath‘s sharp direction and clever screenwriter, 7500 knows how to keep the action movie without ever overstaying its welcome.
Tobias Ellis (Gordon-Levitt) is the first officer on a commercial airliner taking off from Berlin Airport. Not long after the flight takes off, a group of terrorists storm the cockpit. Tobias is able to subdue one of them and force the others out, but not before being stabbed in the arm and being forced to take control of the plane. As the terrorists keep trying to force their way into the cockpit, Tobias must keep a level head and make a safe landing even as the terrorists threaten the safety of the passengers and crew.
From the beginning, Vollrath works to keep you immersed in the reality of the situation. The film strikes the right tone right from its opening scene where Tobias and the captain go through their checklist and prepare the plane for takeoff. The mundane reality helps ground the film to show that Tobias isn’t special or some big hero. We don’t even know that much about his beyond the fact that he’s in a relationship with one of the flight attendants and they have a two-year-old son together. 7500 doesn’t bother with loads of exposition or bells and whistles, and to its credit, that makes the stakes feel all the more immediate. Vollrath isn’t trying to redo United 93 (thankfully), but he is trying to keep us on edge in extremely tight quarters.
He’s largely able to do this because he has Gordon-Levitt at the center of his picture. Gordon-Levitt has been acting since he was a child, and in a cinema landscape where you’re either supposed to be churning out movies or TV shows or you don’t exist, he gives a powerful reminder of why he’s such a valuable actor. There are scenes where Tobias is pleading and beginning against a TV monitor because that’s the only way he can keep the cockpit safe while still communicating with the terrorists. For other actors, it would look silly, but Gordon-Levitt sells it completely, and if we didn’t care about Tobias, we’d lose interest in the movie. Although 7500 may have the scale of a very good TV movie, you stay riveted largely because of Gordon-Levitt’s performance.
Even at a scant 90 minutes, Vollrath keeps us wondering how he’s going to keep the action humming. Thankfully, he never relies on any cheap tricks or surprises, and every scene feels organic to the plot. The only two points are where he goes astray are by casting the terrorists as Islamic extremists (simply because it’s tired, predictable, and storytellers can do better), and the ending. It’s not so much that the ending is bad, but it feels a scene short of where it needs to be. After this breathless experience, you need a Captain Phillips-like closer or some kind of coda, but Vollrath hits us hard with a bummer that shakes you but deprives the audience of any kind of catharsis.
Despite these minor shortcomings, I was constantly surprised at how well 7500 works. The film always comes right up to the edge of feeling like an exercise, but then pulls back to make you feel the reality of the situation and care about its protagonist. As a film that will be available on streaming, it’s a good thriller that will keep you riveted without demanding too much of your time, and it’s just good to see Gordon-Levitt back on screen and having lost none of the presence that made him a star.