- - Thursday, October 10, 2013

When director Paul Greengrass took over the Jason Bourne franchise with “The Bourne Supremacy” in 2004, he electrified the series by giving it a sense of hard-edged reality. The light was dull, the cameras jarringly shaky, the images grainy. “Supremacy” and its 2006 sequel, “The Bourne Legacy,” were spy thrillers that felt almost like documentaries.

With his latest film, “Captain Phillips,” Mr. Greengrass works a similar trick — but this time in reverse. “Captain Phillips” is based on the true story of a cargo ship overtaken by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. But thanks to Mr. Greengrass, and screenwriter Billy Ray, it’s a real-world story that works and feels like a high-stakes thriller.

The title character is Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a massive container ship hauling food aid and commercial goods between Oman and Kenya. As the ship rounds the horn of Africa, it passes by the coast of Somalia, where it attracts the attention of a small gang of armed pirates — because unlike the other ships in the area, the Alabama is traveling alone.

Essentially, it’s a maritime mugging. The crew of the Alabama fends off an initial attack attempt. But four of the pirates regroup and return to board the ship. The Alabama becomes the first American transport ship to be hijacked in 200 years.

From there it’s a game of wits: four gun-toting pirates against Captain Phillips and a crew of twenty, most of whom are hidden. The crew is unarmed, but they also know the ship; the pirates don’t.

It’s a tense standoff, and for the first hour, Mr. Greengrass and Mr. Ray keep the focus on the moment-to-moment tactics employed by each side. But there’s also a brewing psychological battle between the leaders of the two factions: Captain Phillips, the calm family man who just wants the situation to end without violence, and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirate leader who, under pressure from his bosses back home, is determined not to leave without a sizable score.

Part of what makes Muse such a frightening and believable villain is that, without ever excusing his actions, Mr. Greengrass and Mr. Ray highlight the third-world economic incentives that drive his criminality. It’s “just business,” Muse tells Phillips. He seems like a real person, responding to real pressures — not some avatar of outlandish evil.

The same goes for Phillips, whose level-headed, managerial approach to the crisis stands in stark relief to the superpowered fantasy heroes that tend to dominate the multiplexes. Mr. Hanks, whose strength as an actor has always been to imbue everyman roles with a quiet sense of heroism, is especially affecting in the film’s second half, when the showdown escalates and moves to closer quarters.

Even as the event turns into an international incident involving multiple U.S. Navy vessels, Mr. Greengrass conveys the terrifying intimacy of the standoff between Phillips and his captors. The strict personal focus allows him to keep the suspense high even as the firepower imbalance between the pirates and the Navy warships grows. Indeed, some of the final moments were so realistically tense that I found them difficult to watch. That’s a testament to Mr. Greengrass’s considerable gifts as a director — and a reminder that in the real world, action thriller scenarios are often as harrowing as they are exciting.

★★★ 1/2 

TITLE:Captain Phillips

CREDITS: Directed by Paul Greengrass, screenplay by Billy Ray

RATING: PG-13 for language, tension, violence

RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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