"Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"
On 9th November 1983, Alfred "Freddy" Heineken, the flamboyant Dutch President of beer monsters Heineken International, was kidnapped by a group of five young criminals and held for a ransom of 35 million Dutch guilders (about £10 million then, more than double that now). And if you know nothing about the real-life case on which this film is based and want to be surprised by events as they unfold (and frankly even if you are familiar with it you're in for a few surprises), I'd hop to the last paragraph. And don't watch the trailer.
21 Days: The Heineken Kidnapping is one of those over-literal titles you sometimes find on American made-for-TV movies that almost render short plot synopses redundant. That's certainly the case here: this is the story of the Heineken kidnapping and the victim was held for twenty-one days. Far out. The nature of story even allows the filmmakers to adopt a traditional three-act structure: the planning and kidnapping; the period of Freddy's incarceration; and the hunt for and eventual apprehension of the kidnappers.
As so often with infamous real-world crime tales, the facts of the case alone are interesting enough to form the basis of a solid dramatic reconstruction. But that clearly wasn't enough for director Maarten Treurniet and his co-screenwriter Kees van Beijnum, who make an up-front announcement that the story has been fictionalised, an approach that understandably drew criticism from respected crime journalist Peter R. de Vries, whose 1987 book De ontvoering van Alfred Heineken (The Kidnapping of Alfred Heineken) should by all rights have been (but wasn't) the acknowledged basis for the film. Not having read the book myself (my Dutch is shockingly poor), I'm not in a position to comment on all of the fabricated elements, but it's not hard to find evidence of blatant fact-tampering. It's also interesting to note that one of the kidnappers, Willem Holleeder, made a legal attempt to block the film's release on the basis that he and his colleagues had been portrayed as more violent than they actually were and that releasing the film would be "bad for his image". Well there's a thing.
In many ways 21 Days: The Heineken Kidnapping is a solid enough true-life crime drama. The kidnap and its immediate build-up are effectively staged and the pace and unfussy manner with which the story unfolds certainly holds the attention – my first viewing was interrupted midway and it took me just seconds to get back into the flow when I was able to resume watching. I was nonetheless still left with a sense of longing for what could and should have been. In a laudable attempt to show both sides of the story, Treurniet fumbles some golden opportunities for seat-grinding tension and character identification, notably during the period of Freddy's incarceration, when keeping us trapped in the cell with him would have far more effectively bonded us to his fear and mounting claustrophobia. Instead these short sequences are repeatedly interrupted to keep tabs on what the kidnappers are up to, and frankly they are neither charismatic nor intimidating enough to inspire either identification or fear. Indeed, as the film progresses it becomes increasingly hard to know how we're supposed to take them – at one point gang kingpins Rem and Cor (who are loosely based Willem Holleeder and Cor van Hout) go from being self-satisfied dodgers of justice to hunted fugitives to resourceful action men to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, all in the space of a few busy minutes.
That we feel for Freddy anyway is down to a finely nuanced performance from an impressively crumpled Rutger Hauer in his first major Dutch language role for thirty years. It's he that enables the hardship of his imprisonment to register, in spite of a nagging sense of karmic justice that comes with seeing someone of Freddy Heineken's wealth and power forced to experience what it feels like to live in fear. It's appropriate, then, that when the flipping between the two parties pauses for a while, the focus is on Freddy as he struggles to come to terms with the emotional consequences of spending twenty-one days in the cramped, unheated and poorly ventilated cell, not knowing whether he would live to tell the tale. It's through him that the film finds its emotional feet, notably in a delicately handled scene in a police interrogation room in which Freddy confronts and ultimately comforts the physically abused girlfriend of one of his abductors.
It's thus a bit of a shame that Treurniet and van Beijnum then felt the need to play games with the truth in pursuit of a crime-thriller climax, spicing up what was actually a string of extradition attempts and location shuffling with the suggestion that Cor and Rem were forced to surrender by the resourceful and vengeful Freddy's relentless determination to bring them to book. Not only does this play as increasingly fanciful (and I realise I'm working from second-hand information on the facts of the case, so am open to correction), but backfires a little in its effort to present the actions of Freddy and his freshly re-devoted wife as morally righteous; instead I was left with a strong sense that the successful pursuit of justice is a privilege reserved for the obscenely wealthy, and that if you have enough cash then you can chase anyone down, irrespective of whether they're guilty or not.
A spotless anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer with a nicely pitched contrast range that keeps the black levels crisp without sucking in too much shadow detail, which really helps bring the night-time city exteriors to life. Colours are largely naturalistic with a slight lean towards earthy tones, and the level of detail is good for a DVD, though is undoubtably more impressive on the simultaneously released Blu-ray.
The choice between Dolby 2.0 stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround is an easy one to make; both are clear, well mixed and with a decent dynamic range, but the 5.1 has a richer feel and makes punchy and effective (but not overdone) use of the LFE bass – a single thunderclap 72 minutes in sounds superb in 5.1. The surrounds are subtly employed for location effects on the surround mix.
The only extra here is a Trailer (2:03), a rock 'n' roll affair that suggests a high-octane thriller and gives lots away for newcomers to the story.
I've seen a number of reviews of The Heineken Kidnapping that claim the film plays more like a TV movie than a theatrical feature and I can see where they're coming from. They also suggest that the film is overlong and could do with some trimming, but on that score I'm in complete disagreement and would even suggest that the occasional abruptness of the tonal and behaviour changes makes it sometimes feel like a cut-down version of a longer work. It's decently made and always interesting, but had the potential to be so much more. Arrow's DVD is likewise technically sound but would have benefited from some background on the case that inspired the film, though I have the feeling that's something the filmmakers wouldn't want to see on the same disc as their semi-fictionalised feature.