While watching this exciting new Tom Hanks thriller I was reminded of the old Monster Trucks ads that bellowed, “You Pay for the Whole Seat but You’ll Only Need the Edge!”
It a film about piracy and I don’t mean the sleazy guys who bootleg movies but the real pirates who were responsible for the first hijacking of an American cargo ship in two hundred years.
Based on the true story of veteran seadog Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) who took on a routine voyage around the Horn of Africa in April 2009. Piloting the MV Maersk Alabama and loaded with food and fresh water, his ship was stalked by Somali Pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi).
“Chances are its just fishermen,” says his first mate.
“They’re not here to fish,” Phillips replies, watching the heavily armed attackers through binoculars.
He calls for a piracy drill that goes from pretend to “real world” as the pirates prepare to board the ship.
Once aboard Muse makes it clear he doesn’t want to harm anyone. “Nobody gets hurt,” he says. “Its just business.”
But business turns violent when it becomes clear the expected million-dollar payday Muse and company were expecting isn’t going to pan out. Offered $30,000 he snorts, “What do I look like, a beggar?”
As the situation escalates Phillips is taken aboard a life raft, kidnapped, bound for Somalia where he’ll be held for ransom.
Paul Greengrass is a master of action. His work on the second and third Jason Bourne films and “United 93,” which placed the audience in the middle of the action during the 9/11 hijackings are white-knuckle action flicks that don’t simply entertain with explosions, fight scenes and shoot ‘em up scenes. Instead he stages epic action scenes that feel intimate, as if a fist (or worse!) may fly off the screen and bonk the viewer on the head.
His scenes involve the viewer and as such are exciting in a way that Michael Bay’s sequences, despite bigger budgets and giant robots, will never be.
“Captain Phillips” is a case in point. Greengrass does a great job of portraying the vastness of the ocean and the isolation of the ship and its crew, which accentuates the helplessness of the unarmed sailors against the greedy pirates. A quiet scene in the ship’s boiler room with only the pirate’s footsteps to beak the silence is also unbearably tense.
It’s outsized action and setting, brought down to a personal level, which increases the human stakes and the audience’s connection to the story.
At the center of it all are two remarkable performances. Hanks is reliable, despite an uneven Bostonian accent, anchoring the film with his rock solid heroics. (SPOILER ALERT) It’s only in the film’s final moments, when the ordeal is over, that Hanks really unloads with the kind of raw and shell shocked reaction that the Academy is going to love.
Abdi also impresses. This is an action movie and as written he is primarily a plot device to keep the action moving forward, but despite an underwritten part he brings some humanity to the villain role. His explanation for his way of life, that he is a victim of limited opportunity and not a bad man, helps place his actions in context.
“Captain Phillips” is a terrifically tense thriller that is worth the price of a full seat, even though you’ll only use the edge.