MOVIE REVIEW

‘Captain Phillips’ is a tense, true-life adventure | 3½ stars

Updated: 2013-10-10T19:13:20Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

The harrowing “Captain Phillips” wields its power on dual levels.

First, it’s a thoroughly gripping account of a smart and resourceful ship captain playing a cat-and-mouse game with a smart and desperate villain. Second, it roots the viewer into the captain’s mindset — a “now what should I do?” series of options where the margin for success appears quite slim.

Like “127 Hours” or “The Impossible,” “Captain Phillips,” from director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”), shows how a contemporary real-life calamity tests the wits, stamina, resilience and faith of its hero.

Tom Hanks, in a role that is drawing Oscar talk, stars as Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama container ship in 2009. Loaded with a cargo that includes 200 tons of food aid, the vessel is en route from Oman to Kenya when Somali pirates attack. These aren’t the cutlass-brandishing, parrot-toting swashbucklers of yore. No, these are former fishermen bullied by warlords and/or driven to crime by economic hardship. They may not be hauling cannons, just AK-47s.

That’s more than the blue-collar crew of the Alabama can claim. Weapons aren’t allowed on board, so the no-nonsense Phillips follows the corporate playbook on how to deter these hijackers. It works for a while.

Eventually a few pirates — led by the equally unflappable Muse (convincingly played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi) — seize the ship. Their plan is to ransom the crew for $10 million.

“Look at me,” Muse says as he locks eyes with Phillips. “I’m the captain now.”

As the book “Black Hawk Down” also details, Somali militants often pass the hours chewing khat, a flowering plant that causes euphoria and agitation. In “Captain Phillips,” the pirates load up on khat before hitting the water, both to build their confidence and to dull their common sense. But as the piracy drags on, they run out of the narcotic. Not only are these gaunt fishermen panicked by their crumbling plan, they are now also addicts without a fix.

It’s one of the many subtle bits Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”) employ to ensure the tension never subsides. Scenes of claustrophobic face-offs are intercut with large-scale maneuvers once the distress calls reach military ears.

The filmmakers’ only real miscalculation (aside from veering into some preachy socio-political waters) is a showdown between the remaining pirates and a Navy SEAL team that gets stretched 10 minutes too long. The same beats are hit again and again. “I’m going to take the shot.” “No, it’s not clear.” Rinse. Repeat.

Hanks is memorable as the titular star, even though this captain could never be called a flashy character. The Oscar winner is susceptible to hokiness when handed lesser material such as “The Terminal” and “The Da Vinci Code.” Here, he is exactly what he needs to be: credible.

Phillips displays a habit of continually adjusting his glasses, as if the view of his hazardous circumstances might change for the better. Little is revealed about Phillips, other than quick glimpses during a cursory introduction as his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), drives him to the airport. The entire conversation is shot from the backseat while the couple face forward, away from the camera. The scene is weirdly intimate, even for Greengrass, whose “The Bourne Supremacy” represents one of the shakiest ever of shaky-cam flicks.

“You think these trips get easier, but it’s just the opposite,” Andrea says.

Indeed.

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