In a world where terrorists attack the innocent in the name of either religion or a political cause, there is something perversely refreshing about the Somali pirates who have become infamous for taking over ships and kidnaping crew members. It's just business to them and a profitable one at that, according to the new film “Captain Phillips.”
On the other hand, while the marauders may not have anything personal against their victims, they can be as bloodthirsty as the most hateful member of al-Qaeda if they don’t get the ransom that they are demanding.
“Captain Phillips” is a dramatization of the real-life 2009 hijacking of an American merchant ship, the Maersk Alabama, by resourceful Somali thugs. Navy SEALS were called in to restore order five days after the pirates boarded the ship and wound up taking Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage on one of the Alabama's tiny motorized lifeboats.
Knowing how the story is going to end does not diminish one iota the tension that builds for nearly the entire two hours and 10 minutes of this film. When the Maersk Alabama sets out from Oman to its intended destination, Nairobi, Kenya, Phillips and his crew are well aware of the dangers of sailing by Somalia, albeit in international waters. He repeatedly holds antihijacking practice drills with his guys and gives explicit instructions to make sure that everything is locked at all times. Despite his precautions, Phillips has no idea about the hell he will soon face.
Director Paul Greengrass gives us a look into the clandestine world of Somali gangsters. We see impoverished and desperate men dreaming of making a big score by taking out a couple of powerboats and some smalltime artillery that wouldn’t catch anyone’s eye at an NRA gun show with the hopes of robbing some valuable cargo and taking prisoners. As with any crime organization there are a few Mr. Big types, who are known as the tribe elders.
The Somali leader in charge of the Maersk Alabama takeover is Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who reminds me of Fast Black, the dangerous pimp that Morgan Freeman played in the 1987 Christopher Reeve film “Street Smart.” Like Fast Black, Muse can be funny, charming and reassuring one minute and then turn into an out-of-control maniac who can kill anyone who crosses him in the most minute ways the next.
Hanks is superb as expected in the role of the stoic and heroic Phillips, a veteran ship captain who hails from Vermont. Hanks got to trot out the same no-nonsense New England accent that he did when he played FBI agent Carl Hanratty in the 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio film, “Catch Me If You Can.”
Like “Catch Me If You Can,” this is a cat-and-mouse film that will leave you on the edge of your seat because of the interplay between Hanks and Abdi, a newcomer who more than holds his own with the multiple-time Academy Award winner. Abdi makes sure that Muse is not just a standard-issue foreign film villain. Muse talks about how he dreams of coming to America (in real life Abdi immigrated to the United States from Somalia in 1989) and claims that if foreigners did not destroy his homeland’s fishing industry all of this unpleasantness would be unnecessary.
You may want to take a Dramamine before seeing this film because you will feel as if you are bobbing up and down in the sea on that tiny lifeboat being helmed by Muse. When the Navy starts closing in it is easy to think that they are coming to your rescue.
“Captain Phillips” is a gripping film that will do a better job of making you bite your knuckles than 99 percent of the horror films that come out this time of year.