He’s played a toy cowboy, a war hero and an astronaut, and now he’s a cargo ship captain? While this might not seem like the most glamorous role for Tom Hanks, he doesn’t fail to impress us, giving bravura and a relatable performance in the biopic “Captain Phillips,” based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.” Released Oct. 11, Paul Greengrass’ shiny new survival/action thriller portrays the real-life events of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, in which an American cargo ship was overtaken by armed Somali pirates in 2009, the first successful pirate seizure of an American ship since the early 1800s. No elaborate swordfights, “arghs” or rum-swigging Johnny Depps here, just men with tattered clothing sporting AK-47 firepower in motorboats. From its humble opening to its nail-biting final minutes, the movie delivers on drama, action, suspense, emotion and thrills.
“Phillips” also sees a welcome return to form for both Hanks and Greengrass. The director is well known for action-packed spy/political/military thrillers like the last two entries in the Matt Damon “Bourne” trilogy as well as 2010’s “Green Zone.” Moreover, in 2006 he tackled the plane hijackings of Sept. 11 in the gut-wrenching film “United 93,” certifying his ability to translate tender and disastrous subjects into electrifying cinematic masterpieces. In Hanks’s case, he once more plays the role of an ordinary man plunged into extraordinary circumstances like he did in “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away.” Here he assumes the bearded persona of Capt. Richard Phillips, an average Vermont family man leading a laden container ship to Africa, infusing a Bostonian accent similar to the one he used in 2002’s “Catch Me If You Can.”
Other than Hanks and a small cameo by Catherine Keener as his wife, the use of virtually unknown actors adds to the realism and stakes of the film, a technique that played in Greengrass’ favor in “United 93.” Along with the quasi-documentary style of shooting (lots of shakiness and close-ups), Barry Ackroyd’s (“The Hurt Locker”) crisp cinematography of the ocean and boat settings, and Billy Ray’s well-researched screenplay, the film jumps off the screen (no 3-D required!) and grabs you by the collar with its uncanny authenticity — a feat that most big-scale thrillers fail to do nowadays.
As Phillips and his men sail over a pristine ocean, they are chased and their ship boarded by a ragtag band of bickering Somali pirates in tense and clever sequences of deception, gunfire, flares, hoses and ladders. Despite the immense star power of Hanks, the Somali-American actors portraying the pirates deliver some of the best performances of the film, especially Barkhad Abdi, who plays the stubborn leader of the group who has bitten off a little more than he can chew. Once the pirates are aboard, Phillips and the crew play a nerve-racking game of cat-and-mouse with the greedy, trigger-happy pirates, trying to outwit and injure them one by one until Phillips is taken hostage in the ship’s lifeboat, which plunges into the ocean headed for the Somali coast.
As the U.S. Navy gets involved, the movie turns into “Die Hard” at sea. The injured and manic pirates demand $10 million for the captain’s safe return. The cramped, sweaty shots inside the lifeboat add a sense of tension and claustrophobia. Everything seems lost. With all the military and nautical lingo, one could think of the film as an upscale Michael Bay movie — one that ratchets up the brains and downplays the violence and explosion pornography. Nevertheless, the movie is 134 minutes and seems to drag on, mainly at the end. While this is to build to the climax, it often feels a little boring and superfluous, making you wish it would end already.
At the center of it all, Hanks is the beating heart that keeps the film running smoothly. His everyman, almost fatherly performance (especially in the closing minutes) is a testament to his maturation as an actor and a confirmation of the praise he has received over the years. Besides “Jaws” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” this is one of the best suspenseful and exhilarating seafaring movies out there. If you plan on seeing the movie, do yourself a favor and forget everything that “Titanic,” “Waterworld” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control” taught you about aquatic-based cinema. Just don’t be surprised if “Captain Phillips” sails straight into Oscar-infested waters.