With a strong sense of class consciousness, this is a caper thriller as much as it is a character study of men quixotically driven to a desperate act. Based on a real 1983 crime, the film has exciting chases through the picturesque canals of Amsterdam and intense performances by a charismatic ensemble.
Freddy Heineken (Anthony Hopkins), a pugnacious one-percenter, is first seen at a press conference proudly extolling his expansion of the beer company founded by his grandfather more than a century earlier. But for five long-time friends, the global recession of the early 1980s has hit these would-be entrepreneurs hard, including Cor van Hout (a blond Jim Sturgess,), Jan Boellaard (Ryan Kwanten), and Willem Holleeder (Sam Worthington).
The banks won’t give their struggling construction company a loan, and, uncomfortable in suits, they roll up their sleeves to take matters into their own hands: They try to forcibly evict a squatter commune from the building site for their dream project. Ironically, the authorities back the rights of the anarchists, and the old friends are left battered and bankrupt. To add injury to insult, Willem’s father mocks the friends’ rejection of stable factory work, such as his lifetime job at the Heineken brewery, even though he was recently laid off. (The international cast’s mélange of awkward accents is confusing; at first I thought the father worked in some branch in the UK.)
As close as brothers (two are brothers-in-law), each has individual financial pressures and obligations (wives, girlfriends, children, pregnancies). During the friends’ tradition of watching New Year’s Eve fireworks together on a canal boat, van Hout hatches an audacious plan, far from the whimsical choice of the out-of-work steel workers in The Full Monty: to use their skills in a bitter retaliation against the system by kidnapping the Heineken chairman for millions in ransom.
He is so convincing that they set to work constructing an elaborate hideout for the victim on the industrial waterfront. (More irony, Amsterdam is now so gentrified that the filmmakers had to film at a desolate port in Antwerp.) They methodically share stakeout duties to learn the mogul’s schedule, buy masks, test handcuffs, repaint their van, and are surprised how easy it is to get hold of guns. Once they actually pull off the scheme, the tension focuses on whether they can stay unified while waiting and waiting for the bulky payoff, as police search the city and the crime dominates the news. (Europe was still spooked by the violent 1977 political kidnappings of German industrialists, as seen in The Baader Meinhof Complex).
The additional abduction of Heineken’s distraught chauffeur becomes a sore point that weakens the working-class criminals’ solidarity, and the arrogant chairman becomes sympathetic—he even shares his favorite takeout chicken that he demands they order. Sometimes Heineken comes close to an annoying Master of the Universe version of the child victim in O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” as he keeps making demands for comfort, though he’s willing to help get them their money—but the friends are not fools.
The days and weeks count down, and stress rises over the difficulties of picking up the ransom without getting caught. The friction escalates as the friends have less and less control, and the crime takes a toll on them and their interactions with their oblivious, then shocked, families. (The film is based on journalist Peter R. de Vries’s book based on interviews with van Hout and Holleeder, available in English as an ebook this month.)
Sturgess is magnetic and sets off some bromance chemistry with Worthington, while Kwanten is almost as a sweet dim bulb as he was in True Blood. Director Daniel Alfredson, like in his The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and The Girl Who Played With Fire, ratchets up the chase scenes as the men flee across borders. Underlining the tension are the questions: Who will stay loyal? Who will break? The audience really cares about them all, so the final scroll revealing what happens to each adds tragic commentary to their transformation from comrades to criminals.