After the misstep that was 2010’s Green Zone, Paul Greengrass is back on form with Captain Phillips, a mostly successful thriller that features stellar lead performances from Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi.

Best known for directing The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass has made his mark directing modern, gritty and high-octane action films, but Captain Phillips takes his grounded style to a whole new level. I’m not overly familiar with what actually happened, but as a film, Captain Phillips is utterly plausible, yet still nail-bitingly tense. The directing itself leaves something to be desired, but the acting more than makes up for it, in a movie that is as entertaining as it is compelling.

Set in 2009, Captain Phillips is a biopic about Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, who is taken hostage and held for ransom by a group of Somali pirates, led by Abduwal Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Like I said, the film may not be entirely accurate to the real events, but the story is still highly engaging and well-written. The immediate opening falls a little flat, and the pacing starts to drag during the second and third acts, but for the most part, Captain Phillips is pulled as taut as a tightrope wire.

Performance-wise, everyone does a great job, but the two worth mentioning are Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi.  Hanks is a consistently brilliant lead, as has been established in many films previously, but it’s only in the nerve-wracking and emotional closing scenes that he really shines. However, the real stand-out is newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who gives a gripping and multifaceted performance as pirate Abduwal Muse. Muse is ruthless and utterly terrifying, but there are hints at a different side to him – as he tells Phillips, he is just a fisherman. There’s a whole dimension to the character that is only inferred, and is all the more powerful for it. Hanks and Abdi have a great rapport throughout Captain Phillips, but unfortunately there is no satisfying conclusion to their shared character arc. The writers really missed an opportunity here.

Greengrass knows how to make fast-paced action thrillers, but the directing in Captain Phillips is pretty standard fare for him. There are some nice shots, and most scenes are handled extremely well (the “chase scenes” between the cargo ship and the pirate skiffs are amazing), but as is to be expected from Greengrass, there is too much shaky, handheld camera work. That, along with lots of fast cutting and uncomfortable close-up shots, cause certain parts of Captain Phillips to be rather jarring; it can also be hard to make out what’s happening on screen. That being said, this is definitely a more thoughtful and tense film than the edge-of-your-seat action in the Bourne movies. It’s a welcome change of pace for Greengrass, even if some of his directorial shortcomings do make a resurgence.

Consistently thrilling, Captain Phillips does what it sets out to do very well. Minor issues with pacing and shaky camera work hold the film back, but it’s still a really great film, with incredible tension, an emotional ending and outstanding performances from Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. This is Paul Greengrass at his best.


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