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Tom Hanks plays real-life hero Captain Richard Phillips, the helmer of a cargo ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.
Jack Sparrow has a lot to answer for. According to the captain of the Black Pearl, a life of piracy consists of being cheeky, getting drunk and mincing around with Keith Richards. These Disney-sanctioned antics pull focus from the fact that real pirates are still very much the scourge of the seven seas, and these guys don't have wooden legs and eye-patches - they have AK-47s and they're not afraid to use them. Captain Richard Phillips discovered this the hard way in 2009 when he was taken hostage after his cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, was boarded by armed Somali pirates – and they weren't in the market for rum.
As he did with United 93, director Paul Greengrass drops you smack-bang in the middle of the drama, enveloping you effortlessly and utterly in the details: characters converse in obfuscatory lingo; radars blip in poorly-lit control rooms; Greengrass's familiar techno-chatter – the pleasing patter of military jargon that acts as a temporary score of white noise – rises in urgency as the tension is cranked, ramping up from a low hum to become the pounding pulse of the movie. If the initial hijacking scenes are thrilling from both technical and emotional standpoints, Captain Phillips' last 30 minutes are almost unbearably tense: the finale is a masterpiece of sustained threat, orchestrated by a director who is seemingly at his most comfortable in the midst of frenzy and chaos.
At the centre of the storm is, of course, Tom Hanks, who hasn't had a role this dramatically potent since Road To Perdition. Captain Phillips sees the multiple Oscar-winner in typically unshowy form, hidden behind a salt 'n' pepper goatee and a Primark polo shirt, complete with sweat patches under his man-boobs. Hanks' captain starts the movie as the brave, resourceful hero you'd expect of the actor, but the moment Phillips is taken hostage, the panic becomes palpable as his options run out. This is a movie driven by fear, not just in Hanks' raw performance, but in the pirates themselves; newcomer Barkhad Abdi as chief antagonist Muse expertly sells the do-or-die desperation that drives a tiny boat of Davids to take on a ten-tonne Goliath. "Everything gon' be okay" goes his repeated refrain, though it often seems like he's reassuring himself and not his hostages.
Based on Phillips' memoir, A Captain's Duty, the film's outcome is sadly never in question, but Greengrass raises enough hell to make you forget and Hanks has you hanging on for dear life until the final, devastating, heartbreaking scene. Needless to say, it doesn't end with a yo-ho-ho.
With Greengrass an expert navigator of choppy waters and Hanks the assured hand at the wheel, Captain Phillips is one of the year's most thrilling cinematic voyages.
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