Grim and daring

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A ship captain (Tom Hanks) is threatened and menaced by Somali pirates in “Captain Phillips.”

The gripping new thriller Captain Phillips assures us that when you’re thousands of miles from home and trapped in a small boat with four screaming maniacs who want to kill you, you’re not alone.

The U.S. Navy will always have our back.

Captain America himself, Tom Hanks, stars as the titular captain, but it is the Navy SEALs who show up in the third act and put a stop to all this pirate nonsense.

The film is based on the nonfiction book by Capt. Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, with screenplay from Billy Ray. It documents the relatively short period in 2009 when Somali pirates boarded Capt. Phillips’ ship, the Maersk Alabama, only to have the operation go bad and end up with the captain as a lone hostage in a small rescue boat.

Unlike the recent Danish film A Hijacking, Captain Phillips avoids the long stretches of tedium brought on by a prolonged hostage situation. Action director Paul Greengrass sees no need for tedium, speeding his narrative along with constantly changing situations and conflicts.

The director smoothly and quickly orchestrates the successive scenes of two pirate gangs dwindling to one, who then take over the colossal container ship. The lead-up to the pirates’ boarding of the ship serves as a model for ratcheted tension.

A succession of scenes then sees the pirates fouling up their mission, all while nearby naval forces gather to carry out an intricate rescue mission. At one time, Phillips even tells the head pirate, Muse (Barkhad Abdi): “The Navy is not going to let you win.”

The four armed pirates seem frightening enough, particularly when they fire shots and scream at the crew (when not screaming at each other). Greengrass provocatively showcases Muse, a swaggering, threatening, skinny thug. But his slight, bantamweight figure never seems less than menacing, either to viewers or to the trapped captain.

Greengrass paces his movie admirably, never prolonging scenes unnecessarily, yet squeezing out maximum white-knuckle tension before flying on to the next setup. Even when he takes the time at the beginning to provide background on the personal lives of both Phillips and Muse, it’s done with rapidity and efficiency.

Captain Phillips qualifies as top-notch entertainment, filled with colorful characters, plenty of action and a scenario highlighting the good guys.

MOVIE RATING

Captain Phillips

****

Rated PG-13, 134 minutes.

Opens Friday.


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