I'll give it to Paul Greengrass: he has toned down his shaky, uber-realistic and nausea-inducing hand-held cameras. “Captain Phillips” is probably his first film that didn't make me wish I had an airplane bag on hand.
Having said that, I still wish someone would introduce him to a tripod as there seems to be at least a slight shake — some tiny movement — in almost every shot. It does create an urgent feeling, admittedly, which lends itself well to both “Phillips” and the heart-wrenching, terrifying “United 93.”
Tom Hanks stars as the titular commercial boat captain who is a generally nice guy from Massachusetts. He runs a tight ship and takes the threat of pirates seriously once he sees the warning. Still, nothing prepares him for the small group ran by Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi) that boards the ship armed with machine guns and delusions of grandeur.
Abdi is absolutely brilliant. Two parts menacing and one part saddening, his Muse has embraced the “do whatever it takes” mentality and ridden it into insanity. If the scariest bad guys are the ones with tunnel-vision who don't fear death, Muse would fit in with the best.
Unfortunately for Muse, he's also the only pirate with half a brain, and his brain's functionality can't counter the negative consequences of giving machine guns to three nincompoops (including one with serious anger management issues).
The first two acts of “Phillips” work well, creating excellent suspense as the pirates board the ship and the face-off ensues. The film takes a little too long to shift into thriller gear, but the lagging opening has nothing on the prolonged final act.
The final 20 minutes are far too drawn out, leaving me slightly bored for two reasons. First, it's not a thrilling cat-and-mouse game anymore. It's obvious how this completely out-of-hand situation is going to end — I should note that it was even more obvious because I'd already seen a similar ending to a Somali pirates tale on “South Park” — and there's just nothing too suspenseful about a situation where one side is already checkmated but they keep moving their King repeatedly between two spaces.
I was also bored because I was more interested in what Muse and his accomplices could possibly be thinking. Their situation gets so way of out hand quickly but Muse never loses the tunnel-vision or the delusions of grandeur. He clings on to the notion he's going to get millions despite the obvious indications (like the arrival of the U.S. Navy) that he's lost.
I was never given a proper glimpse into that psyche. The film focuses on the hostage situation instead and moves toward a conclusion that, even if true to life, fits the genre formula. There were no unexpected turns, no surprises. If you're going to give me a final act that never ends, well, the least you can do is surprise me!
I should probably note that Tom Hanks gives a fantastic, realistic performance. But that's to be expected and, to be frank, it's the kind of role he normally shines in. I was much more impressed with his turn in the daring and wonderful “Cloud Atlas.”
Abdi is the film's true surprise. He steals every scene he's in and, somehow, is able to show us the desperate person inside. He finds much more humanity in his performance than he was given by the script and creates a character that, while still unlikable, is one that we respect and pity.
Adbi's performance alone is worth the price of admission.
“Captain Phillips” is rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.