October 17, 2013

'Captain Phillips' a fascinating re-telling of ship hijacking


---- — In the movies, pirates are generally hard-living, cutlass-wielding rogues with peg legs and parrots. “Captain Phillips,” however, offers an engrossing glimpse at the modern version of pirates, whose idea of buried treasure is something wholly different.

It’s a fascinating and realistic re-telling of the much-publicized 2009 hijacking of a cargo ship helmed by Vermont’s Richard Phillips, though it falls a bit short of the expectations of greatness generated by the film’s media hype.

An understated Tom Hanks stars as Phillips, a no-nonsense captain who guides his unarmed all-American crew on a journey through dangerous waters off the coast of Somalia. Sure enough, armed pirates in rickety boats attack and eventually board his ship, the Maersk Alabama.

There’s $30,000 in the safe and hundreds of containers full of cargo, but the big money comes from ransoming hostages — especially ones from a rich country like the United States.

Phillips goes mostly by the book trying to repel the attackers, with a few clever ideas of his own thrown in. Once the pirates are on board — and with most of the crew hiding below decks per his orders — he then bravely does what he can to mislead and slow them.

Eventually, the pirates are convinced to leave the ship in a lifeboat, but Phillips is forced to go with them and a standoff with the U.S. Navy looms.

Director Paul Greengrass, who helmed two of the “Bourne” films and “United 93,” brings his trademark shaky cams to the ocean drama and lets the story tell itself, refusing to add much manufactured Hollywood drama.

Using non-professional actors, he also humanizes the pirates. Rather than straight-out villains, they’re played as somewhat sympathetic pawns — would-be fisherman toiling under the whim of a dangerous warlord.

Barkhad Abdi, as the rail-thin pirate leader Muse is particularly effective, showing both a dash of bravado and a sense of regret.

Some of the movie’s drama drains away, however, when it gets to the claustrophobic lifeboat and the four emaciated pirates who face the combined might of the U.S. military.

Hanks does a fine job as Phillips, yet another everyman for the Oscar-winner. He will again earn some Oscar buzz, though to me he falls short of trophy level this time around, if for no other reason than his spotty Boston accent, which he seemed to adopt to signify Vermont.

It’s worth noting, though, that his closing scene (with a real-life Navy corpsman) was unscripted and largely ad-libbed on the spot.

“Captain Phillips” is a very good thriller, with a complicated social conscience. It’s well worth watching, despite its imperfections.

Rental Recommendation: “United 93” is haunting and realistic and almost certain to draw tears. Grade: A

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"Captain Phillips"

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Michael Chernus

Rated: PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use)

Running time: 134 minutes