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Adventure on high seas anchored by great performances

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

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

2That is the warning given to the crew of the American cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama that, in 2009, sailed off the coast of Somalia only to be confronted in mid-drill with two skiffs carrying gun-toting pirates giving chase to their vessel.

In the Hollywood of the distant past, one imagines how this story might have been translated as a glossy disaster movie, with aging big stars (Charlton Heston, maybe, or Burt Lancaster) playing resolute military brass plotting out an armed response and a host of actresses (Karen Black, Ava Gardner) playing nail-chewing spouses back home in America.

Fortunately, director Paul Greengrass hews very closely to a real-world style, with a body of work that includes the fact-based tragedies United 93 and Bloody Sunday.

He does have a bona fide Hollywood star in Tom Hanks, as the ship's titular captain, Rich Phillips. But in an embrace of Greengrass's hand-held-camera style of documentary immediacy, Hanks plays the role with little dramatic embellishment. It is not needed.

Based on Phillips' book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea, the film focuses almost exclusively on Phillips as he contends with this extraordinary at-sea assault. Instead of the usual diversions of hand-wringing wives or blustering brass, Greengrass gives screen time to Phillips' opposite, the Somali "captain" named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), whose ruthlessness is clearly a product of desperate poverty. He is proud of the fact that his past exploits have included a Greek ship that paid off a $6-million ransom. But he doesn't like to consider how that payoff likely went to a warlord who, in this particular movie, is as invisible as the captain's corporate bosses.

Abdi is deceptively good here, portraying bravado and arrogance betrayed by signs of incrementally frayed nerves.

In assaults of this kind, American politicians generally like to insult the perpetrators as "cowardly," but one would be hard-pressed to deny the reckless courage of Muse and his three compatriots as they board a giant cargo ship with a crew of 20 to demand a multimillion-dollar ransom.

In fact, they cannot beat those odds. This accounts for the film's intensely claustrophobic second act, in which the stakes are diminished, yet Greengrass still manages to ratchet up the tension as the action shifts to a Somalia-bound lifeboat that becomes the object of the outsize attention of the American navy.

If there is Oscar talk for Hanks, it is owing to the film's final scene, apparently improvised, that shows the actor in top form, portraying not heroism but the emotional cost of heroism.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2013 D1

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