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updated: 10/10/2013 4:47 PM

'Captain Phillips' a smart, white-knuckled thriller

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  • Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) confronts Somali pirates taking over his cargo ship in Paul Greengrass' fact-based suspense thriller "Captain Phillips."

      Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) confronts Somali pirates taking over his cargo ship in Paul Greengrass' fact-based suspense thriller "Captain Phillips."

  • Video: "Captain Phillips" trailer

 
 

Paul Greengrass' smart and accomplished fact-based thriller "Captain Phillips" does two things that many regular Hollywood action/survival movies do not:

First, "Captain Phillips" takes the time to humanize its antagonists, the four Somali pirates who hijack the U.S. cargo ship Alabama in 2009.

We glimpse their impoverished existence, their dashed hopes for better lives, and how easily they can be motivated and manipulated by the African and European cartels that mastermind the pirate raids along the Somali coast.

There comes a moment in "Captain Phillips" when -- assuming you possess a sense of humanity -- you begin to feel as sorry for the four pirates as you do for Tom Hanks' titular hero whom they've kidnapped for ransom.

The pirates -- disorganized, untrained and operating on a dangerous mix of bravado and fear -- go up against the highly organized, well-trained, efficiently cool U.S. Navy, armed with intel from drones and listening devices.

They are a quartet of Davids fighting a military Goliath, and they barely possess slingshots.

Second, where most Hollywood survival tales end the moment the hero escapes from danger, "Captain Phillips" adds a crucial extra scene in which we glimpse the full emotional toll that the hijacking takes on the ship's skipper, suffering from shock and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

These two crucial humanizing elements give extra dramatic ballast to Greengrass' nautical thriller, already a white-knuckle experience grounded in gritty, immediate realism.

After a brief perfunctory introduction to Captain Richard Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener), the U.S. ship Maersk Alabama departs from Oman on its way to Kenya via the Somali corridor.

Once the ship hits unfriendly waters, Phillips' worst fears become real.

Two tiny dots on the radar scope close in on the Alabama. Two pirate skiffs approach quickly.

Phillips employs maneuvering tactics to knock one of the boats out of commission.

The other one continues in the first of several suspense-saturated sequences that Greengrass, director of the 9/11 drama "United 93" and both "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," ratchets up with meticulous, nerve-wracking precision.

Then, the unthinkable happens. The pirates, armed with machine guns, board the vessel and head straight to the control room to confront Captain Phillips.

This moment explodes with raw, dramatic nitro. (Greengrass kept Hanks and the Somali actors playing the pirates from speaking to each other until this scene to pump up the anxiety.)

No matter what the nervous pirate boss Muse (a frightening, charismatic Barkhad Abdi) asks, Phillips keeps repeating "I'm with you now!" as if already in shock. (Hanks has said his first confrontation with Adbi was so visceral, the script went out of his head and he had to go commando with the dialogue.)

Muse, the leader, may be smart enough to know that Phillips is playing him, but not quite smart enough to know how. The forceful and short-fused Najee (Faysal Ahmed) serves as the pirates' North star, constantly challenging Muse's leadership and cutting their American prisoner no slack.

Phillips proves to be extremely resourceful, dropping subversive suggestions to his hidden crew members. He warns the pirates that they should be aware of broken glass, cleverly communicating to listening crew members they should put broken glass down for the pirates to step on, which they do. (Phillips might also have seen the original "Die Hard" for inspiration.)

The big moments in "Captain Phillips" belong to Hanks, who renders an insightful portrait of a regular, decent guy dealing with life-or-death emergencies.

But the real find here are the scrawny, natural actors who play the pirates, cast by Greengrass from an estimated 800 Somali performers auditioned in Minneapolis.

If "Captain Phillips" possesses a downside, screenwriter Billy Ray's dialogue overdoses on "game" references to the point of distraction. These include the lines: "Stop the games!" "No games!" and "What kind of games are they playing?" and at least five more.

This is an odd refrain, considering Greengrass makes it abundantly clear that when pirates hijack American vessels, it's simply game over.

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