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Captain Phillips Movie Review: Tom Hanks’ Four-Star Film Is “Gripping”

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."
Tom Hanks stars in Captain Phillips

In theaters Friday, Oct. 11

4 stars (out of 4 stars)

Sometimes, the most awe-inspiring superhero movies are the ones culled from fact-based events. Captain Phillips, a gripping thriller, is an excellent example.

Your iron man: A rumpled, bespectacled New England-based captain named Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks). In 2009, he was commandeering a U.S. cargo ship en route to Kenya when a group of young Somali pirates hijacked it, demanding millions of dollars. Though the men, led by a desperate former fisherman named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), are only whizzing by via a small boat, audiences know the invasion is coming. And this doesn’t make the scene any less nail-baiting.

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Phillips is physically overmatched by the gun-toting pirates, so it’s fascinating to watch him use his wits to outsmart them. (He’s especially quick on a guided tour of the massive ship, as his crew hides in its bowels). Under the most dire of circumstances, he’s cautious yet gutsy, sympathetic yet domineering. He bellows to his wily, mocking captors, “I’m the captain! I’m the captain!” as a way of reassurance, not panic. And yet, just when it seems like clear heads might prevail and the drama might subside, the pirates take the captain hostage aboard a confined lifeboat.

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Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) didn’t choose the easy way out in this thriller. Instead of green screening it, he lensed primarily in the rocky, open water — which lends an extra layer to the film’s harried pace. Adding to the authenticity, he employs real-life, steely-nerved Navy SEALS to aid in the captain’s rescue. Wise decision: Who wants to be distracted playing name-that-actor with such high stakes involved?

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Hanks, of course, is the exception. It’s been too long since the two-time Oscar winner commanded the screen like this. (Specifically, it’s been 13 years. Since 2000’s Cast Away, he’s been wasted in underwhelming films like The Ladykillers, The Da Vinci Code and Cloud Atlas). But he takes the leadership role here with a calm confidence, carrying his crew and rattled audiences on his back. In such a brutally tense outing, he’s the ideal choice to anchor it.

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