The raid is on.
Israeli commandos are about to descend on Entebbe Airport, on a mission to take out Ugandan soldiers and hijacker-terrorists and rescue more than 100 civilian hostages.
Back at command central, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin looks at his military advisers and says …
“This is it.”
It’s almost a surprise when no one replies, “No [bleep], sir.”
All too often in “7 Days in Entebbe,” primary characters on all sides of this 1970s period-piece political thriller state the obvious — and then state it again, and then have to stand around while someone else states the obvious one more time, just in case the folks in the seats have yet to grasp the stakes at hand and the dilemmas in play.
Directed with a creative (sometimes to the point of distraction) flourish by José Padilha (the Netflix series “Narcos”) and featuring an international gathering of gifted but in some cases miscast players, “7 Days in Entebbe” is an honorable but not essential retelling of Operation Entebbe, still hailed as one of the most audacious, brave and successful rescue missions of its kind.
In the summer of 1976, an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris with 248 passengers was hijacked by pro-Palestine radicals and eventually landed in the main airport in Uganda. After a week of tense standoffs (during which time some of the hostages were let go), with the hijackers demanding the release of dozens of imprisoned Palestinian militants in exchange for the hostages, the Israeli government sent a unit to Entebbe on a rescue mission.
We’ve seen dramatizations of the story before. There were two mediocre made-for-TV extravaganzas: “Victory at Entebbe” (1976) and “Raid on Entebbe” (1977), remarkable mostly for their marquee casts, with Kirk Douglas, Helen Hayes, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Bronson, Peter Finch and Yaphet Kotto starring in one or the other. And “The Last King of Scotland” (2006) wasn’t solely about Entebbe, but a (highly fictionalized) version of events was incorporated into the story.
Now comes this disappointingly listless thriller, in which at least four of the titular seven days feel like place-holders, with everyone holding their positions and regurgitating the same concerns and regrets and debates.
“7 Days in Entebbe” opens with a pulse-pounding opening sequence — but it doesn’t involve the hijackers or the passengers or any government officials.
It’s a dance number. A pulse-pounding, chills-inducing, powerful and provocative dance number.
Members of the Batsheva Dance Company take their places on folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle. As the music intensifies, the dancers rise from their seats with almost violent choreography, with one of them falling to the floor with a jarring thud each time it’s her turn to join the sequence.
We cut back to this sequence a number of times in the film, with the dancers becoming increasingly intense, their movements ever more mesmerizing. There are some brilliant quick-cuts between the precision moves of the dance company and the precision moves of the rescue operation — but that’s also a problem, because the dance company footage is on some level more involving than the life-and-death military ops stuff, which is pretty standard action movie fare.
The lead characters in “7 Days …” are actually the German radical terrorist hijackers, Wilfried Bose and Brigitte Kuhlmann.
The German-Spanish actor Daniel Bruhl is outstanding as Bose, an idealistic and relatively naïve bookstore operator who makes the cardinal mistake of getting to know some of the hostages, further weakening his already bending commitment to his cause.
The British actress Rosamund Pike, alas, is a disaster as Kuhlmann. Wearing a bad wig and huge glasses, spouting threats like she’s Honey Bunny in “Pulp Fiction,” her eyes growing into ever-wider saucers as she pops pills, Pike’s Kuhlmann is a caricature careening through the scenery of a docudrama.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi, excellent) chain-smokes and works the phones and debates strategy with his cabinet. His defense minister, Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan, another case of miscasting), states again and again and AGAIN that Israel must never negotiate with terrorists, and the only solution is swift and sweeping military action.
“You want us to invade Uganda?” says Rabin.
Peres shrugs. Yes. Invade Uganda. Go to war. Do whatever must be done, and if the civilians (including nearly 100 Israelis) perish in the process, so be it.
Nonso Anozie is appropriately hammy as the lunatic Idi Amin, who chuckles and grins and talks up his own legend no matter what the situation. We circle back to the dance company with a corny romance subplot involving one of the commandos and a dancer. (“I fight so you can dance!” says the soldier to his fretting gal.)
And then comes the raid, and it’s muted and underwhelming, containing only a fraction of the fire and fury of that aforementioned dance number.
Focus Features presents a film directed by José Padilha and written by Gregory Burke. Rated PG-13 (for violence, some thematic material, drug use, smoking and brief strong language). Running time: 106 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.